The most critical aspect of the story is Joan, our powerful, complicated, realistic, and nuanced hero. It is mandatory to create a protagonist that is as strong and relatable as possible. I am not interested in a typical girl-in-peril character, the horror movie trope of a woman hiding while the bad guy gets closer and closer to catching her. I am also not interested in typical “mom roles” - women that exist solely to protect and support their children and husband. In BEAUTIFUL THINGS we have a chance to turn both of these traditional female types on their heads while the disaster unfolds.
The challenge: how do we portray a strong, independent and complicated protagonist through the primary action of protecting her child from a bad guy? And how do we address this challenge while escalating the tension in the many static moments demanded by hiding?
This is where all the fun comes in.
BRINGING JOAN TO LIFE
In the book Joan’s character is mostly defined through flashbacks, but I want to get to know Joan in the present. We can do it by increasing Lincoln’s stubbornness and resistance, forcing Joan to react in many different ways to keep him calm. We learn about her from her reactions. For instance, to distract Lincoln she could tell him stories about her past and his childhood, which would incorporate what the book presents as flashbacks, and also let us know who Joan is as a person. I also imagine that Joan would lose her patience, and at moments she might resort to near violence towards her own kid. Let’s remember she is trying to save their lives. If you had to shove a sock in your kid’s mouth to save his life, you’d damn well do it. In the book Joan discovers a kid hidden in a trashcan and that eventually seems like a really good idea. If we let Joan react to a wider variety of behavior from Lincoln, we get to know her as a character.
In fact, I would like to see a constant dialogue with Lincoln, for Joan’s benefit as much as his – talking would settle her nerves. And why does she only text her husband? She would call him. I suspect she would call the police herself, frustrated at the slowness of the rescue. Why don’t they fly in with a helicopter and drop a ladder into the enclosure? Why don’t they drive in in tanks? What is taking so damn long? I want to see her frustration and despair mount constantly. The film ROOM has nothing on the terror Joan faces trying save her son from three men with automatic weapons. It feels like something that could happen to any of us.
LINCOLN SHOULD LIKE VIOLENCE
In the beginning of the book, Lincoln is fascinated by superheroes. I see an opportunity to push this theme further by highlighting his interest in the violence these “superheroes” represent. Imagine how haunting it would be if at the beginning of the story he is pretending to shoot and kill people or animals? Imagine if when he is told there is a shooting he is excited and thinks it’s a game, and wants to protect his mom and shoot back? Imagine watching him progress from excitement to confusion to fear. Watching a child discover this darkness is heartbreaking. A sudden loss of innocence.
Lincoln is four, close to my son Wolfgang’s age. I saw many similarities between them, and stopped reading the book only once- to climb into bed with my kid and hold him tight until he told me “go away mommy”. The most unsettling recent development in my own child has been his new fascination with guns, killing and death. He has never held a toy gun, let alone seen a real one. The word "gun" is not spoken in our house, yet somehow he has acquired a broad vocabulary of violence. His new favorite thing is to collapse around the house with his tongue out, proclaiming “I am dead!” It is interesting to learn that children of this age already have a deep attraction to violence. Curious about his impulses, I decided to let him play with toy guns for the first time and asked him about what guns are for:
LINCOLN SHOULD RESISTS HIDING
I learned several things from my exercise with Wolfgang. Little kids are impossible to control. Not only is my kid incapable of sitting still, when you try to force him he melts down instantly. He is inconsolable and cannot be reasoned with unless the circumstances change drastically.
In the book, Joan keeps worrying that Lincoln will melt down, but it never actually happens. I am surprised at how well behaved Lincoln is, how well he follows directions. He never makes a noise and barely protests, so the book sidesteps an insane amount of potential tension. What if Lincoln resisted being quiet and hiding? As I suggested above, this would force Joan into action and make their dialogue much more interesting.
LINCOLN FORCES THEM OUT OF HIDING
Here is the most frustrating plot point in the book: Joan, anticipating Lincoln’s hunger, runs to the snack machine. I could not believe that she would do this preemptively, even if it were to prevent a meltdown. The shooters are out there! I would literally cut my finger and let him drink my blood (a trick my mother always told me kept a kid alive in a cave for days) before I would take my child into the open during a shooting. But, what if Lincoln were finally losing it? Going ballistic? Demanding snacks? Joan would have no choice but to leave the hiding spot. As any parent knows it is nearly impossible to deny a kid something without a major reaction. The stress of watching a mother deal with a tantrum while trying to save their lives is so intense I can hardly breathe while imagining. By amping up Lincoln’s resistance, we suddenly have a much more high-tension story line.