To me, there is nothing scarier than a fictional serial killer. Yes, real serial killers are terrifying but most people are very unlikely to ever come across one and know this. Fictional serial killers, however, are everywhere: there are more book, film and TV show serial killers than there will ever be real ones (thank God).
I’ve come to realise that there seems to be a bit of a formula for writing a serial killer story. It’s not compulsory, of course, just a set of common steps that run through quite a few of them. The steps don’t always occur in exactly the same order. The steps don’t always occur in isolation; sometimes multiple steps are happening at the same time. And the steps are abstract enough that despite appearing in almost all serial killer movies, the stories are still distinct because of the details of each different serial killer, their methods, their victims and the people trying to track them down.
I’ve tested this formula on a few of my favourite serial killer movies (many originating from books) including The Silence of the Lambs, Frequency, Jennifer 8, Copycat, The Bone Collector and Kiss the Girls and it seems to hold true. So if it can help with plot, allowing writers to focus on the specifics instead, maybe we might be lucky enough to come up with a character as iconic as Hannibal Lecter.
I’ve used The Silence of the Lambs as an example below.
Establish the Main Character
It’s usual in many stories to show the main character in their normal world before the events of the story force them into an uncomfortable new reality. For Clarice Starling, this means training at the FBI academy. The main character may be an investigator or a witness or someone being framed for the crime. The step usually occurs before the main character is even aware of the serial killer. At the very least, it occurs before their involvement.
Establish the Unsolved Sequence of Crimes
The main character is drawn into the serial killer’s crimes, usually as a way of explaining to the reader or watcher the known details. Clarice is summoned to the office of Jack Crawford, head of the Behavioural Science Unit, on a seemingly unrelated matter.
Establish a Seemingly Unrelated Subplot
The unrelated subplot is often the key to solving the crime, even though nobody knows it at the time. Jack Crawford asks Clarice to meet with Dr Hannibal Lecter as part of a project to interview all serial killers in custody.
Establish a Bureaucratic Naysayer
The bureaucratic naysayer tends to get in the way of the case being solved, often due to ego, sometimes due to wanting to do everything by the book. It may also be someone who desperately wants to involve themselves in the investigation. In the case of The Silence of the Lambs, it’s Dr Chiltern.
Establish an Inappropriate Relationship
Calling it an inappropriate relationship might not be quite right, but often the relationship will cause the main character to be removed from the official investigation or the person in the relationship with the main character will betray them. It’s not necessarily a romantic relationship. Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter’s relationship is based on professional respect (despite what happens in later books).
Establish the Traumatic History of the Main Character
All good main characters are tormented by their past in some way (or at least that’s how it seems). In Clarice’s case, her socioeconomic background is called out almost immediately by Dr Lecter:
“You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition’s given you some length of bone, but you’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp? You know how quickly the boys found you… all those tedious sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars… while you could only dream of getting out… getting anywhere… getting all the way to the FBI.”
And then as the film progresses, the story of her father’s death and the screaming lambs that gives the story its name is detailed by Clarice herself.
Discovery of Seemingly Unrelated Evidence
The seemingly unrelated evidence will make sense later on but for now it appears to be a frustratingly irrelevant. Lecter telling Clarice to seek out Miss Mofet is a prime example.
Offer of Assistance from Someone with Ulterior Motives
Once Clarice has found Miss Mofet, Dr Lecter offers to provide a psychological profile of the Buffalo Bill killer. He’s pretty clear about his ulterior motives – escaping Dr Chiltern’s clutches – but there’s nothing to say ulterior motives have to be secret motives.
Disappearance/Discovery of the Latest Victim
In most serial killer cases, real and fictional, the disappearance or discovery of a new victim can be crucial in providing further information towards the discovery of the killer. It’s often a fifty/fifty prospect of whether the victim is named or not. In The Silence of the Lambs, there are two latest victims – the woman found in Elk River, West Virginia, who is never named and Catherine Martin, the senator’s daughter, who is kidnapped with the intention of being the killer’s next dead body.
Behaviour from a Superior that Belittles the Main Character
There is almost always an act of belittlement from a superior or a direction not to pursue a particular lead that only makes the main character more determined. At the funeral home, Crawford asks the local sheriff to discuss the case away from Clarice because of the nature of the crime.
Evidence Begins to Emerge
Evidence begins drip, drip, dripping in (the moth in the throat, the patches of skin missing from the Elk River victim’s body) and suddenly one thing leads to the next, and then the next, and then the next.
Evidence from the First Murder Proves Crucial
Because serial killers tend to start close to home, the first murder and the first victim often prove crucial in getting the investigators very close to identifying the killer. Real life investigators know this long before it ever seems to become important in fiction but it makes for a dramatic revealing moment:
Clarice: “Fredrica Bimmel, from Belvedere, Ohio. First girl taken, third body found. Why?”
Ardelia: “Because she didn’t drift. He weighted her down.”
Clarice: “What did Lecter say about ‘first principles’?”
Clarice: “What does this guy do? He ‘covets’. How do we first start to covet?”
Ardelia: “We covet what we see…”
Clarice: “…every day.”
Ardelia: “Hot damn, Clarice.”
Clarice: “He knew her.”
At this point in the story, the killer is close to being caught even if nobody in the story really understands that yet but for some reason, either intentional misdirection from the killer or the wrong evidence being followed leads the police or investigators down the wrong path. In The Silence of the Lambs, this is the taskforce flying to Calumet City to raid an old address for the man they’ve identified as importing the specific types of moths being left in the victim’s throats.
Main Character Follows the Road Less Travelled
The main character isn’t distracted by the misdirection or is asked to follow up on something that isn’t thought to be as important in tracking down the killer and unexpectedly comes across the killer earlier than anyone expects. Clarice is in Belvedere, Ohio, reinterviewing witnesses in relation to the kidnapping and murder of Fredrica Bimmel and knocks on the killer’s door without initially realising she has found him.
A Battle of Wits and Then Bodies
And then comes the brutal and bloody battle of wits and usually bodies as the main character and the killer fight to gain the upper hand. Buffalo Bill escapes down into the basement where he has hidden Catherine Martin and all the evidence of his double life, and Clarice follows him with her gun drawn. When he shuts off the power and all the lights go out, she must beat him against all the odds.
Which, of course, she does. The serial killer is either captured or killed, often after having the chance to avoid both and failing to take the opportunity. Buffalo Bill reaches out and nearly touches Clarice multiple times as she fumbles around in the dark, managing to reveal his position and allowing her to shoot him.
Return to Normal Life
And then everyone returns to their normal life, which isn’t really normal because it has now changed forever as a result of the events that have led them here. Clarice graduates from the FBI academy, so her life is back on track, but then Lecter calls her from Bimini after having escaped, where he is “having an old friend for dinner” (Dr Chiltern who is desperately trying to hide, knowing he has tormented Lecter for years and the favour will be returned).
And there you have it. It’s not perfect because no formula is but it works in so many already successful stories that it is ultimately useful.