In a time when the media is tapping into our desire to be shocked, what makes a narrative truly thrilling? To be shocked, we simply need a moment of utter surprise. To be thrilled, we require more: a set up, an emotional investment, a crescendo, a payoff. But according to Noah Hawley, author of the new hit novel Before The Fall and showrunner on FX’s Fargo, it must begin with something big.
“We live in a moment in time when we’re overwhelmed with stories in all forms,” Hawley says in an interview with Paste. “So in some ways, if you really want to connect with people, you have to tell them a story that has a certain amount of energy, that starts with a catalytic event.”
In Before The Fall, that event is a plane crash. The passengers include a hedge fund manager and his wife, the head of a Fox News-style cable station and his family, a painter and a small crew of experienced professionals. Only two people survive.
No one can deliver an answer to why the plane went down shortly after takeoff, so an exhaustive investigation and interrogation begins. Jumping back and forth between characters to relive the final days before the crash, Hawley tackles the motivations that could explain the tragedy while exploring what it means to survive in the wake of such great loss.
“I like stories with a lot of moving pieces, because it creates the element of randomness on some level,” Hawley says. “You know they are going to collide with each other at some point, but how and which ones collide—there’s an element of chance to that, and I think that’s exciting.”
Like in Fargo, the mystery in Before the Fall doesn’t rest in the “how” or the “why”; it’s Hawley’s arrangement of the pieces that drives the tension. Throughout the novel, it seems plausible that each character could have been to blame for the crash. The parallel plots of the story, one running before the crash and the other after, feel equally urgent. That urgency, in turn, drives the sense of danger as the story pushes towards its resolution.
Hawley perceives that sense of danger as tapping into something deep in the human psyche, perhaps calling back to a time when fear kept us alive.
“It’s a human desire to be scared,” he says. “On some level, that’s how we survived—that sense of fear and danger. Our lives are much safer, so we gravitate to those stories that makes us feel those things and learn lessons, even if it’s just, ‘What are you doing? Don’t go in the basement!’”
When it comes to what Hawley looks for in thrillers, the answer is unsurprising: Human stories that challenge the traditional good-guy/bad-guy dichotomy. In his own work, Hawley says he wants the audience’s emotional investment in the characters to “complicate the narrative,” causing foregone conclusions about the way things should work out to become messier as we see multi-dimensional people interacting.
“L.A. Confidential had those elements,” Hawley says, referencing the complex relationship between the characters played by Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe. “What’s great is that when these characters collide and join forces, it’s really exciting, because it could so easily have gone the other way.”
Beyond the characters, a thriller’s story has to be engaging in an unexpected way. For Hawley, that doesn’t require a totally unknown conclusion.
“We can look at The Jinx as a thriller also,” he says. “How did [filmmaker Andrew Jarecki] take a story that was old and [tell it so that] you literally felt like it was unfolding before your eyes? That sense of engagement and the vitality of that investigation.”
Similarly, he believes the film Zodiac taps into the same sense of immediacy and possibility.
“I have this moment every time where I think, ‘Maybe they’re going to solve it this time,’” Hawley says. “The movie’s been made. You know they aren’t going to solve it. But when something has pulled you along like that, you feel like you’re on the cusp of something.”
Memento has a place among Hawley’s favorite thrillers for the same reason.
“What is that movie except a story about a guy trying to figure out who killed his wife, and yet he can’t remember anything?” Hawley says. “So you realize at the end of the movie that he might have done this nine times already, and you’re telling it backwards and out of order. Suddenly, it’s all new again in a way that is really provocative and interesting.”
So what sits at the top of his list? No Country for Old Men. “There’s no music in the whole movie, and yet it’s so tense. And you’re jumping around with point of view and there’s an inventiveness to the storytelling that takes you out of predictability.”
“It is those moments, and those thrillers, where you really feel like you can’t breathe,” Hawley says. “When you turn that page or when the next scene happens, you’re going to know something more, and it’s visceral for you.”
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.