Date Night with the Red Dragon: Writing Tips from Thomas Harris

William Blake painting mentioned in the book Red Dragon

Every part of me gathered up a sweat. The heat was hot moistness dripping down my forehead. I glanced out the window expecting to see a bright yellow sun, but my eyes fell on thick, dark clouds. An overcast blanketed the sky and any minute now droplets of rain would splash down. This wasn’t typical California weather.

My grandmother had a saying, “When the weather gets crazy an earthquake is coming.” Hopefully, this won’t be the case.

With temperatures as they were, I knew today would be a lazy-day. My mood reflected the weather, I wanted something dark, yet fiery. Standing before my bookcase, my fingers strummed the spines of two novels, Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.

Before Youtube and iPhones, I was just a chubby youth sitting cross-legged in front of
the T.V. With my eyes inches from the screen I watched Anthony Hopkins portray Dr. Hannibal Lecter. His raspy voice and disturbing intellect was hypnotic. When he looked past the prison bars towards Agent Clarice Starling, I felt his stare pierce through the T.V. screen and send a shiver down my spine.


Back to the humid evening in 2017, I choose to read Red Dragon where Harris first introduced the now infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Much like walking into a room for the second time, I noticed new details.. In a later post, I will delve deeper into what I found. For now, I’ll list the advice Harris gives in the forward of the novel:

“To write a novel, you must begin with what you can see then add what came before and what came after”

I’m always clicking the delete button on my laptop because a story isn’t starting “right”. Perhaps I’m too hung-up on getting the beginning perfect that the essence of the “moment” becomes lost.

What do I mean by “moment”? It’s that image which prompted you to write. Maybe it was a traveler trudging through a desert landscape or two lovers stealing glances from across a crowded room?

A single moment or idea compelled you to sit down and write, but by obsessing on how to get to that “moment”, you loose the passion which forced you to write in the first place. Maybe by focusing on what we first see, then the rest will follow naturally.


“I am invisible to my characters when I’m in a room with them and they are deciding their fates with little or no help from me.”

Harris takes himself out of the equation which is interesting because I’ve always viewed writers as the essential part of the storytelling. Granted, Harris is still controlling events and he can alter outcomes, but his approach is seemingly unconscious. This detachedness seems fluid, even natural. It reminds me of the writing exercise: stream of consciousness.

For anyone unfamiliar, stream-of-consciouness is where you write every word which comes to mind taking no concern for punctation, grammar, or coherence. Your words spill onto the pages appearing, to me at least, like the rantings of a mad person. Harris’ method is similar to stream of consciousness where events unravel as quickly as they are created much like real life.

“You must understand that when you are writing a novel you are not making anything up. It’s all there and you have to find it.” 

Harris starts the forward with the following sentence, “I want to tell you the circumstances in which I first encountered Hannibal Lecter, M.D.” He writes about his characters as though they have a pulse, as though his encounters with them have actual consequences.

Of course Harris knows they are not real, but by approaching storywritting and characters in such a manner how does it affect an author’s writing? What details will be seen or enhanced by treating your characters as though their existence is as real as anything else?

Perhaps it helps a writer push through the details. With the hundreds of taste, smells, and sounds to write, how does one determine which to describe? An easy answer would be to write whatever you like, but if you approach writing as Harris does, then you are describing what you find rather than what you create. You must delve deep into a world and discover it in order to describe it perfectly.


“I was enjoying my usual immunity while working, my invisibility to Chilton and Graham and the staff, but I was not comfortable int he presence of Dr. Lecter, not sure at all that the doctor could not see me.”

If our characters are twirling down the rabbit hole to a destination that surprises even us, we should follow it. Even if the topic is taboo or frightening by confronting the challenge it can compels us to write stories we never thought we could write.

Your Response

I’d like to hear about your method whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. How would you describe your approach? Are you methodical? The fly on the wall? Or do you put yourself in a character’s shoes?

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