IN THE WOODS by Tana French

In The Woods was published in 2007. I bought my copy in 2009 because agents and editors continued to rave about Tana French’s storytelling. But curiosity didn’t get the better of me until this past spring while I was in the midst of wrestling with another draft for my WIP. The timing was perfect. Nothing spotlights your faults as a writer better than reading a book by an author who excels where you flounder. This is what Tana French taught me about first person narratives.

1-Tension in first person narratives stems from the narrator’s personal unrest.

French’s narrator, Detective Robert Ryan, was abducted with two friends at the age of twelve. He was the only one found. He has no memory of the incident. He knows the facts of the case only because he read the police file after he made detective. But while investigating the murder of a 12-year old girl found in the same woods where he was abducted, Ryan’s desire to recall what happened to him surfaces.

I had started trying—for the first time, really—to remember what had happened in that wood. I prodded tentatively around the edges of it, barely acknowledging even to myself what I was doing, like a kid picking at a scab but afraid to look. 

Ryan doesn’t admit to this quest until almost halfway through the book, but his vulnerability and the fear of discovering the truth is integral for many of his observations from the beginning.

Men like him—men who are obviously interested purely in what they think of other people, not in what other people think of them have always made me violently insecure. They have a gyroscopic certainty that makes me feel bumbling, affected, spineless, in the wrong place in the wrong clothes.

Although first person tension may stem from the narrator’s personal unrest, readers don’t want to get sucked into a victim’s POV. Whining is no way to acquire friends. I empathized with Detective Robert Ryan because he refused to let past events influence his present. His ability to bounce back, his inner strength, made me want to stand by him for the long haul.

I suppose the whole thing must have had its effects on me, but it would be impossible […] to figure out exactly what they were. I was twelve, after all, an age at which kids are bewildered and amorphous, transforming over-night, no matter how stable their lives are; and a few weeks later I went to boarding school, which shaped and scarred me in far more dramatic, obvious ways. It would feel naive and basically cheesy to unweave my personality, hold up a strand and squeal: Golly, look, this one’s from Knockernaree!

2-The best way to avoid backstory is to step away from the facts.

By illuminating only the essence of the situation, French allows the reader to snuggle up faster with the conflict and relationships the protagonist is dealing with.

That weekend I went over to my parents house for Sunday dinner. I do this every few weeks, although I’m not really sure why. We’re not close; the best we can do is a mutual state of amicable and faintly puzzled politeness, like people who met on a package tour and can’t figure out how to end the connection.

3-The most intoxicating chemistry happens outside of the bedroom.

Because sex is such an integral part of television and film these days, I think its easy to forget the real chemistry that leads to the bedroom begins in tiny observations.

The oversized raincoat made her look about eight, as though she should have had matching Wellies with ladybugs on them, and inside the red hood were huge brown eyes and rain-spiked lashes and a face like kittens. I wanted to dry her gently with a big fluffy towel, in front of a roaring fire.

This moment between Ryan and his new partner Cassie Maddox spurs the imagination and establishes their friendship. There is a misstep down the line, but the momentum of the story is driven by the magnetic bond between them, sparked solely through simple observation.

4-The protagonist’s inner journey is the secret to engagement.

In the Woods is a police procedural. The chapters are atmosphere rich with in-depth conversations, all related to the murder. The information Detectives Ryan and Maddox uncover is wound so tight there is no telling how it will unravel. Then the case dries up.

This case was like an endless, infuriating street corner shell game: I knew the prize was in there somewhere, right under my eye, but the game was rigged and the dealer much too fast for me, and every sure thing I turned over came up empty.

French shows us the tedium of detective work by keeping us abreast of all the factors the police need to eliminate in order to get a clear glimpse of the killer. As a result the readers feel as exhausted and frustrated as Ryan and Maddox. But the reason I kept turning the pages during the stagnation was Detective Ryan’s inner journey. As his past becomes more present he begins to fall apart and make mistakes on the job. I questioned whether I could trust him. The time bomb nature of his emotional state was the thread that carried me through to the didn’t see it coming end.

In The Woods is a mystery, police-procedural, psychological thriller and an exemplary study guide for writers who wish to learn more about first person narratives.