last updated: 5 January 2019 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 916 words)
There are five questions that I routinely ask to help me get to the heart of any story that I’m writing.
These five questions can also be applied to other works to help analyze why a story works or why it doesn’t, and in this note, I’ve asked the questions for Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal.
The five questions help to explain why The Day of the Jackal works so well. You can satisfactorily answer the questions and still have a failing story. But in the hands of a master storyteller like Forsyth, you can be assured that the solid foundations will lead to a great story.
One other benefit of the questions is they signal when the story is finished. Once the key conflict at the heart of the story has been resolved, then the engine driving the narrative has lost its power. All that is left is for any loose ends to be tied.
question one: Who is the Protagonist?
The story hinges on an intended crime—the murder of Charles de Gaulle, the French president. The protagonist and the antagonist are defined in these terms.
The protagonist is Claude Lebel. He is the detective assigned to case; a senior, experienced man, who leads the hunt for the assassin.
It might be easy to assume—in part because of the title of the book—that the protagonist is the nameless Jackal. We certainly meet the Jackal earlier in the story; indeed, we don’t see Lebel until nearly halfway through the tale. And the Jackal is the far more colorful character, but Lebel is the protagonist.
At the end of this note I talk a bit more about what would happen if the story were written from the Jackal’s perspective.
question two: What Does Lebel Want?
Lebel’s aim is simple: to identify and apprehend the man who wants to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, the French president.
question three: What is Keeping Lebel From Getting What He Wants?
Initially, Lebel can’t stop the Jackal because he doesn’t know his identity.
As Lebel uncovers one identity, the Jackal drops that alias and adopts another requiring Lebel to start the hunt again.
question four: What Must Lebel Sacrifice to Get What He Wants?
Whether the Jackal succeeds or not, Lebel must sacrifice much in his pursuit of the assassin.
First he must sacrifice his health, primarily his mental health—he is working under immense pressure and has very little sleep. But in the later stages of the story (especially the denouement) he takes huge physical risks.
But Lebel also takes risk with his career and his reputation which could lead to his immediate expulsion from the police and a subsequent loss of status and income.
The biggest risk he takes is when he monitors the phones of every member of the security council. The risk pays off when he identifies the source of a suspected leak, but if his suspicions had been incorrect, it would have been career ending.
question five: What is At Stake?
The life of Charles de Gaulle, the president of France, and by implication, the human embodiment of the French Republic and its ideals.
The murder of the president would be an act of terror, but the murder was also designed with the specific purpose of bringing about a change in political policy. If the assassin succeeds, then arguably, democracy in France would be dead, and would be replaced by violence.
From the Jackal’s Perspective
As an exercise we can look at these questions from the Jackal’s perspective.
To answer the second question: the Jackal wants money. He wants to earn enough money from one job in order to be able to retire and never have to work again. De Gaulle is secondary to this goal. The target of the assassination is irrelevant to the Jackal—he will kill anyone, provided he is paid.
The members of the OAS who hire the Jackal have a far more personal reason for wanting the assassination of de Gaulle, but the Jackal does not share their view. When viewed from this angle, the Jackal is a far less sympathetic character. He’s intriguing—as an audience, we want to know more—but his motivations are less interesting.
The force that is keeping the Jackal from earning money is the French security services who protect the life of the president.
When we look at what the Jackal has to sacrifice to achieve his goal, it is primarily his time. His planning is meticulous (which is part of the reason why we find him so interesting), and this takes time.
It is only once he has completed the planning and acquired the gun, when he then enters France on his way to Paris, that he encounters physical danger. The French security services (led by Claude Lebel) are looking to stop him, whether by arresting him or ending his life.
Looking at the fifth question—the stakes—what is primarily at stake for the Jackal is money. If he fails, he doesn’t get paid the second installment of the contract term. Not receiving this second payment may mean he won’t have enough money to retire. Therefore, in practical terms, by failing—by not receiving the second installment—his retirement may be delayed or may not be as comfortable as he hoped.
If the story were the Jackal’s story—rather than Lebel’s story—it would be far less engaging and far less compelling. Certainly, a compelling/engaging story could be written around the Jackal, but that wasn’t the choice that Forsyth made.