Neat Writing Tricks From “The Ruins” (If you are from Ireland and usually read this, you are my sole reader from Ireland. Thanks for reading!)

13 01 2022

While I had COVID, I took a gift card I had won at a work-place raffle and I ordered some books. The first to arrive (used from ThriftBooks) was “The Ruins” by Scott Smith. A movie had been made and is available for streaming. I had watched the movie and was really impressed. Over the years, many writers I respect had claimed that the novel itself was a compelling page-turner.

They weren’t kidding! It’s 500 pages and I tore through it in 24 hours. I hadn’t read a novel so eagerly since I was a kid. Despite knowing how the novel was going to end. Despite the characters being obvious redshirt/victims and the monster being a Pottsylvania Creeper that can do impressions.

SPOILERS

The plot: six generic white college age tourists in Mexico go off the beaten track, ignore multiple harbingers, and find themselves forced to stay in Mayan ruins covered with vines that are predatory, carnivorous, and intelligent. The natives know the vines are dangerous and will not let the kids leave the ruins, lest a tendril hitch a ride on them. Lacking resources or means to call for help, the six die rather quickly. You’d think that this plot couldn’t last longer than a Tales From The Crypt episode. But Smith makes it a compelling read over 500 pages.

How did Smith do this? I studied the book as I read and have some answers. Let’s look at style and structure first.

The POV shifts in third-person limited between the six characters. The language is contemporary with little artistic flourish. There are no chapter breaks. There is very little to break the narrative flow. I skimmed the prose easily. Jumping POVs kept scenes from being too long and gave moments where characters could assess a situation from different perspectives.

The plot is a basic Four Beat Structure. The McGuffin for going to The Ruins was to find a missing brother. That drew the plot up to Beat One about 20% in. The brother’s body is found literally when a character notices the vines seems crowding him. The plot questions shifts from “Where Is?” to “How?”. Within that 20%, all the plot elements have been established: a phone ringing in a deep pit, birdcalls from within the vines, and the vines’ peculiar growth.

The other three beats are Reveals Of Horror and the characters’ reactions. Beat Two is discovering the vines are acidic and grow quickly to eat any meat. Beat Three reveals the starving characters discovering the bird calls are actually coming from the vines’ blossoms, and that the vines are as fast as snakes. In Beat Four, the ringing phone is also a mimicry to lure them into the pit to be digested. Characters die on the way, of course, and after each horrid realization there is a POV change where the next character summarizes anew the whole dire situation.

Another group of tourists is supposed to come looking for the doomed, but even that isn’t taken seriously. That group shows up at the end much too late, only to climb The Ruins to presumably seal their own fate.

I noted the McGuffin handoff when the missing brother is found dead. That handoff is made into a “What Is Happening” through the world-building of The Ruins themselves. The brother is found amid the wreckage of an archeological dig. No other bodies are found. There are notebooks, though, and passports and other documents. I was waiting for them to try to piece together the clues. But Smith quite rightly made the paperwork a tease to keep my attention and concentrated on the character interaction. It was the same when the archeologists remains were found, when the natives (rendered in ways sympathetic and distinct) organized, and in examining The Ruins themselves. Just enough world-building to create believability, then moving on with the plot.

The most important aspect of the novel comes with establishing the six redshirt/victims themselves. We learn about them through description and behavior. There is almost no dialogue for the first forty pages. This perspective one step removed shows that this is “an ensemble” so to speak and there is no main character. What is vital is that it sets us up as watchers and not sympathizers. We are set up to watch flawed WASP college kids get drunk, make a lot of assumptions, and Get What’s Coming To Drunk Assuming WASP College Kids.

One could argue that what kills them is White Privilege and this is addressed in the book. It’s touched on only briefly, because deep sociological reflection would create sympathy and ruin plot momentum.

The first forty pages also set tone really well. From the first sentence, the characters spend their time with churning hangovers, sizzling sunburns, bleary from lack of sleep, resentful of another’s actions, menaced by snarling dogs, unsettled by disease and poverty. I’m going to pay more attention to using environment to create tone.

The horror I felt for their fate came through the sensory descriptions. Tendrils squirmed under skin. Acidic sap burned hands. Hopes dropped into chilled horror. Amputations cracked and snapped. I found myself thinking “these guys were dopes, but day-um they didn’t deserve all this.”

This is a good book. The movie has a better ending, in that it follows a Main Character out of the six who becomes the sensory touchstone for the viewer.


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