Thursday, March 28, 2013

Somebody Call the Police!: Fridge Logic and Baby Jane

When I was 14, I became obsessed with the 1962 Robert Aldrich film What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, a cult classic starring Bette Davis as an unhinged former child star named Baby Jane Hudson who terrorizes her invalid sister, Blanche, played by Joan Crawford.

Bette is ghoulishly terrific, cracking her thick, pancake makeup every time she smirks at her own wickedness, and even though Joan looks like a 19th century Sunday school teacher, it eventually becomes clear that she’s no saint either.

It is a weird movie, too harrowing, dark, and studded with Hollywood royalty to be as campy as it is (Blanche's supper tray! The doll! “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy!”). This either works for you or it doesn’t, something I realized when I dragged a friend to a revival screening. He was quiet when we left the theatre, and when I finally asked what he thought of it, he said, with some dismay, “Why didn’t somebody just call the police?!?”

This struck me as hilarious because it is true. What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? would be over in 45 minutes if some responsible party - the maid, the nosy neighbor, her daughter, the creepy pianist who shows up to help Baby Jane with her “comeback,” or even Blanche herself - had just tried a tiny bit harder to get help. However, as someone who had seen the movie half a dozen times and totally bought into its grotesque, wonderful world, this point had never once occurred to me.

There’s a term for this: fridge logic. Alfred Hitchcock allegedly coined it when explaining that audiences probably wouldn’t notice a plot hole in Vertigo until they were home “pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.”

To me, the “plot hole” that ruined the film for my friend didn’t bother me at all because, as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t one. It made sense to me that the neighbors, the maid, and even the creep acted just the way they did.

And now, I must force myself to stop writing about What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, about which I could go on all day, and get to my point.

When writing mysteries and thrillers for teens, you will likely have young protagonists who are in over their heads, who are dealing with adult problems, and who probably stand a chance of falling into real peril. One of the challenges of telling this kind of story is keeping readers from thinking, “Why doesn’t she just call the police?” or “Why doesn’t he ask for help?”

If you can anticipate those moments in your writing, you can find ways to make your readers believe in them, and in your characters.

Maybe she can’t go to the police because social services would get involved, or because they’d be considered a prime suspect, or because the police can’t be trusted.

Maybe the person your character trusts most in the world is too far away to do them any good, or asking for help would involve breaking a trust, or endangering a friend, or destroying a relationship. Maybe your protagonist only thinks it will, but if that belief is compelling, readers will buy into it, too.

Like most right-thinking people, I am fond of Harry Potter. However, one thing about the series that drove me nuts was the way Harry was always was wandering off into grave danger without telling his teachers and friends, who had on numerous prior occasions shown themselves to be trustworthy and capable, what he was up to.*

Of course, J.K. Rowling has her reasons. Harry has his reasons, because for all of his winning qualities, Harry can be headstrong, stubborn, myopic, narcissistic, and he has a little bit of a hero/martyr complex. So, when he wanders off to save the day all by himself against impossible odds, I don’t like it, but I believe it. And the reason it drives me nuts is because it reminds me that Harry’s not perfect.

Your characters don’t have to do what’s logical or reasonable or likeable. But they do have to earn it. Otherwise, your readers are going to reach for the cold chicken in the icebox and realize that your story could have ended on page 75 if only some sensible person had just called the police.
* A teen at the library where I work once shared this observation with me: “Did you ever notice his scar hurts every time he’s about to do something really stupid?”


Mary McCoy is a librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library, and has been a contributor to On Bunker Hill and the 1947project, where she wrote stories about Los Angeles's notorious past. Her debut novel, DEAD TO ME, will be published by Disney-Hyperion in 2014. It's a YA mystery set in Golden Age Hollywood about a teenage girl investigating the attempted murder of her aspiring film star sister.


  1. I loved Whatever Happened to Baby Jane! "But you are are a cripple!" Classic awesome. Also Suddenly Last Summer falls into that same vein.

    Love the comparison :0)

  2. Great post! As someone writing mysteries set in contemporary/not magical world where parents have kids under close watch, I struggle with this especially. At a recent school event, a kid turned to me and said, "If there's one thing I've learned from reading mysteries, it's that you should never go to anyone in authority...they can never help!" Eeek! That prompted a little "the story would be over on page 75" chat:-)

  3. Now I've got to check this movie out!

    On a similar note to your friend, I remember watching "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and wondering, "Why don't they just leave the party?!"

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