Dr. Hannibal Lecter's Prison Cell

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Think about the prison cells you’ve seen. How about Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island cell where he spent many years of his life? There’s nothing at all special about it. It’s a thoroughly unremarkable prison cell.

If you’ve not done, Google images of Al Capone’s cell at Alcatraz. It doesn’t have a window, but otherwise, it could be any derelict prison cell on earth.

How about Sarah Connor’s cell at Pescadero State Hospital in Terminator 2? Anything special about it? Nope; you’ve seen this cell in a hundred movies and TV shows. Except this one is clean and white. And it has the magnificent Linda Hamilton in it. [Writing this post sent me down a Terminator rabbit hole, where I was beside myself with glee at the prospect of the upcoming untitled Terminator movie (#6), starring Arnold Freaking Schwarzenegger and Linda Freaking Hamilton: the Queen of Ass-Kickery.]

Now think about Dr. Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter has the best prison cell. State-of-the-art glass with yapping holes in it, lots of big rocks in the walls, toiletries, and a desk, even! Plus the terrible chair Clarice is forced to sit in while he tells her all about the fava beans and the nice Chianti.

For a second, switch your brain to an interrogation room. Think one up. I’d bet that the image conjured in your mind by those words resembles everybody else’s image. We have a large metal table, usually with three metal chairs at it: two on one side (good cop + bad cop), and one on the other (person being interrogated). Sometimes there is another chair for the captive’s lawyer to sit and say things like, “My client was out of town at the time of the triple homicide, Detective.”

There’s a large pot light which always illuminates a circular area at the centre of the table, leaving the rest of the room relatively dark. And its most prominent feature: the wall of mirror, which is one-way glass enabling the other cops, witnesses, victims, and whoever else to view the proceedings.

You didn’t need that explanation, did you? You know what that room looks like. Most of us have never seen an interrogation room, but we’ve all seen them countless times in the media we consume. Likely, no one with any experience of TV or movies would describe anything else.

Here’s some made-up text to use as an example of how editing might work in situations like this.

“Ned was hauled into the interrogation room and forced into a hard, metal chair. The officer stood breathing down his back as he handcuffed Ned to the chair.

Ned looked around. Across the big metal table were two metal chairs. On the table was a coffee cup with congealed scum floating on top. Above the table was a bright light that made Ned squint. It cast a pool of light on the shiny table.

On one wall, Ned saw a huge mirror. He could see himself in it, handcuffed to the chair. He knew that it was one-way glass and that on the other side was whoever, telling the cops that Ned did it.

‘Pay attention, pal!’ the beefy guard snapped.”

I propose that I could cut everything from ‘Ned looked around’ to ‘telling the cops that Ned did it.’ Why? Because for the purposes of narrative, interrogation rooms are all the same.

When you’re editing your own work, you can keep your eyes out for places that never vary in any appreciable way: interrogation rooms, airports, gas stations, and prison cells for starters.

Until you’re talking about Dr. Lecter’s cell, that is. I brought him up as the exception to the prison cell writing rule. Lecter’s cell must be described because it’s so different from every other cell on earth. The only remarkable aspect of Mandela and Capone’s cells is the person inhabiting them.

Have a look at your work in progress and single out times when you write about a place or room that everyone on earth is familiar with. Then you can let that go, Clarice.