Can you manipulate your audience to avoid being branded?
I never felt a thing. No branding iron sat in the campfire at the ranch until it was red-hot, and no screams came from me as my flesh sizzled. But I was branded. And I still am.
I came to writing thrillers after many years of writing screenplays. Until then my novels had been classified as “literary fiction,” meaning books that get nice reviews but really don’t sell all that well and will be available at Barnes & Noble six months after publication for an easy five bucks.
But I always brought genre elements into them: mystery, thriller, detective. My influences were a number of French writers I’d come to discover over the years who mixed genres as easily as a good bartender constructs a killer Martini: deftly and with finesse, afterwards dropping in that all-important briny little olive, just to make you think twice about it.
Authors such as Patrick Modiano are poignantly aware that much of life is a mystery: we go through it sometimes not knowing everything about our past, or the people who have come into our lives over the years. Life is full of surprises. And sometimes the surprises turn into shocks. Our lives are not what we thought they were.
Prior to writing screenplays for Hollywood (and to be absolutely candid, I came quite close, though I never sold one) I’d been writing on spec for the British TV market in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, 50-minute plays that were heavy on dialogue and light on action, due to both financial constraints and the notion that putting two great actors in a room with a bottle of Scotch could constitute a pitched battle, the ammunition being the clever use of wry repartee. It’s a reason why Harold Pinter continues to be another influence for me.
But when I moved back to the States and continued to write and publish novels, I was also drawn to writing screenplays. In Hollywood, branding is all important: among others, there are romcom writers, action writers, romantic writers, thriller writers. After two or three specs, I had become a member of that last category. It’s what producers and development executives expected of me. And it’s what they were sent by my representatives over the years.
So out of that laboratory of writing for movies, I attempted a thriller novel, my first being The Drowning. The one prior to that, Airtight, was a caper novel that, like The Drowning, was based on my own past, in that case various illicit things I was engaged in back in the ‘60s. The statute of limitations, I must remind those with law enforcement who may be reading this, is long past.
What I learned from writing thriller scripts that I could bring to my novels was:
- Stay original. I tend not to read many thrillers, so I have no idea what other writers are doing. That keeps me off the beaten track.
- Manipulate the audience. Just as I did with scripts, I always ask: What is the audience thinking here? Audiences tend to want to be a step ahead of the narrator or main character. Always be a step ahead of them.
—Stay edgy. Take risks with the material. Writing about the usual suspects and the same old psychopaths can wear thin. Whatever weird psycho you have in mind, in real life it gets much worse. I once had a roommate in college whose father worked for the FBI. He told me there was a serial killer known as the Pig Man. He didn’t go into details, but of course my imagination took care of that.
Which leads me to:
—Respect your audience. They are far cannier than you might think. They’re seasoned readers in your genre. They know the tricks. They have imaginations of their own. The idea is to completely subvert expectations.
—Don’t conclude with the usual ending. A missing-child story doesn’t always end with the kid being found or wandering out of the woods a little worse for wear but happy to be reunited with his family. Lots of people disappear and are never seen again. So…
—Be true to life. Human beings love order. It’s why we love novels and TV series and movies—there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, and usually we come away satisfied with the process. But we also live in chaotic, unstructured, unpredictable times. Life is full of detours and bad rolls of the dice, as well lucky encounters and happy outcomes. I like to reflect in my writing some of the uncertainty that is woven into our daily lives.
—Most of all, be original. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve had over the years was from a manager I had in LA. He said, “Write the same story, just make it different.” There are a finite number of plots, but an infinitely greater number of ways of reintroducing them. Make an old story brand new.
J.P. Smith was born in New York City and began his writing career in England, where he lived for several years with his wife and daughter, and where his first novel was published. As a screenwriter, he was an Academy Nicholl Fellowship Semifinalist in 2014. If She Were Dead, out in January 2020, will be his eighth novel. More about him can be found at jpsmith.org.