Writing Tips

3 Crime Fiction Writing Lessons I Learned from Prisoners (2013)

By October 22, 2013 3 Comments
Detective Loki Prisoners Movie

Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, who may or may not have saved the day.

Warning: spoilers below.

Prisoners is a thriller about Keller Dover’s search for his kidnapped daughter and her friend. The no-nonsense sleuths, moral ambiguity, and bloody interrogation scenes may sound like textbook noir, but Prisoners goes beyond its archetypes to deliver a plot that twists like its prevalent maze symbolism.

Here are 3 lessons I learned about writing compelling crime fiction from Prisoners

1. Coincidences solve the crime.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, channeling both Donnie Darko’s complexity and Tom Hiddleston’s hair) smashes a keyboard over his desk in anger and two clues piece themselves together on the floor. He happens to spot a suspicious-looking loiterer at a vigil for the lost girls, and ties the man to a grisly thirty-year history of abducted children, which later solves the present day crime.

Loki also happens to catch Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman with fangs bared) walking towards his deceased father’s abandoned property, which is also where he’ll later discover the missing and bloody Alex Jones (Paul Dano, playing the main suspect). And, of course, with a computer and a seemingly endless supply of archived newspaper articles at his disposal, deductive reasoning comes easily at the click of a few buttons, even when an abandoned RV is the only clue you have to work with.

2. Don’t be afraid to play with archetypes.

Aggressive-With-A-Dark-Past Keller Dover and his Passive-And-Mostly-Inactive-When-Not-Weeping wife Grace are almost caricatures of parents in mourning. Their more sensible counterparts, Franklin and Nancy Birch, effectively offset the Dovers’ hysterical performances and inject the story with some much needed realism.

Keller Dover is a loud cinematic concoction, an exception in the pool of parents with stolen children, and needs foils, such as the level-headed Detective Loki, to be relatable to the audience. At the same time, archetypes are also responsible for Prisoners’ excellent plot twists. C’mon, pedophile glasses for Alex Jones? The shaggy hair and white RV? Who would peg his soft-spoken aunt as a serial child murderer?

3. The best resolution is none at all.

For those that watched the movie, did you think that the red whistle blown by a near-death Keller Dover resembled the Christian fish symbol? The religious imagery throughout the movie was brought back full-circle in the best and most poignant way possible. Does Detective Loki find the trapped Keller dying under Holly Jones’ old car? Is the shattered Christian faith—the same one that drove Holly Jones and her husband to abduct and kill children as part of their “war on God”—redeemed when Keller’s whistle saves him from certain death?

Prisoners ends with a close-up of Loki’s confused face while the whistle sounds in the distance, which chillingly mirrors the ambiguity of faith and morality we face on a day-to-day basis.

What did you think of Prisoners? Are there any movies that changed the way you looked at writing?

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • kvennarad says:

    3. The best resolution is none at all. – reads like a modernist manifesto. I must admit that when it comes to NARRATIVE resolution, I think it makes stories shut with a bang. That’s the biggest beef I have with literature aimed at younger readers (which is what I seem to be writing these days). Life doesn’t end with ‘the baddies all died’ or ‘and they all lived happily ever after’; lots of stuff goes on, and it’s still a struggle, and some things never get satisfactorily explained. I think readers can cope with this. They’ll bitch about it, but I think it’s high time authors got back to taking this particular risk.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Particularly true for postmodern fiction. I’m thinking of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”, which has an unresolved ending that, according to the Publishers Weekly, “will make you throw the book across the room and start all over again on page one because you know that something important just happened and you’ll be damned if you’re not going to be able to articulate what”. However, I’ve seen a surprising number of young adult and middle grade fiction with less conclusive endings. A title that comes to mind is Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor & Park”, which has an ending so open and bittersweet that it had me searching the book again for clues.

      • kvennarad says:

        The teen-vampire novel I have been commissioned to write is not going to have a ‘satisfactory’ ending, particularly in view of the fact that I have stored up a lot of connecting threads in the plot which cry out for resolution. Teen-vampire, and vampire in general, is a genre I hope to leave as soon as I have finished this work, because all the best plots have already been done to undeath, so that is going to frustrate the hell out of anyone who reads through to the end and yells, “But what happened NEXT?”

        Thank you for the nudge to ‘Eleanor & Park’, which I shall cite if challenged on lack of resolution. 🙂

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