By Chris Holm
Whether you’re writing a mystery, a thriller, or a horror novel, there’s no more potent tool at your disposal than the element of surprise. But genre fans are savvy. They may not realize it, but they’ve internalized the basics of story structure, and they’re intimately familiar with the tropes we frequently lean on. That makes ’em tough to catch off guard.
One of my favorite tricks to subvert audience expectations is a technique I call The Second Idea. The gist of it is to identify those moments when my writing veers toward well-trodden paths and then intentionally zag when the audience expects me to zig. To illustrate, here’s an excerpt from my latest Michael Hendricks thriller, RED RIGHT HAND:
In a dusty corner of a sprawling English Tudor home in Clinton, New York—a quiet college town not far from the decaying industrial city of Utica—a phone began to ring.
Sal Lombino frowned. His daughter, Isabella, stopped plunking at the piano and looked at him.
“Can I get it, Daddy?”
“Not this time, honey. What’d Ms. Malpica tell you?”
She rolled her eyes and said, “That I had to practice at least half an hour every day.”
“And how long’s it been?”
She shrugged. “I dunno. Twenty minutes?” The sheepish smile on her face made it clear she knew damn well it hadn’t been but was hoping her old man was too big a softie to call her on it.
“Try again,” he said, smiling himself. Sal hoped that Izzie never got any better at lying than she was today, midway through her seventh year. But he knew better. Lying was in her DNA. Her hateful bitch of a mother did it for sport. Sal did it for a living.
“It’s been five minutes,” she singsonged low and melancholy, her face an exaggerated pout.
“That’s more like it. Seems to me you should keep playing, then, and leave the phone to me.”
“Okay,” she said reluctantly and resumed clanking out her tune—a meandering version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” with more wrong notes than right.
Truthfully, Sal didn’t much care if she practiced—the lessons were his ex-wife’s idea, no doubt intended to waste Sal’s money and drive him batty when it was his weekend to take Izzie—but the phone ringing was not the house’s primary line. It was his business line, the one that rarely rang, the one he never let his daughter answer.
Sal’s office was a cliché of a gentleman’s study. Mahogany paneling. Built-in floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with books he’d never read. A hinged, hand-painted globe that doubled as a bar cart. Burnished-leather armchairs. Banker’s lamps. An antique Wooton desk on which sat a phone, a leather blotter, and a computer.
Now, I can’t speak for you, dear reader, but as a writer I was invested in this scene right up until I introduced Sal’s office. Sure, a masculine study suits his character—but it’s so generic, it adds nothing to the scene; we’ve all seen it a thousand times before. Which is why:
Sal walked by it without a glance. His office was for show. A rodeo clown, intended to distract. He never conducted any business of real import in it.
The ringing phone was in his second guest room, which was tucked behind the kitchen. The third floor of Sal’s house comprised a guest suite—bedroom, bathroom, and sitting room—and that was where visitors typically stayed. Consequently, this bedroom was rarely used, and everything about it appeared to be an afterthought: The simple, metal-framed twin bed. The cheap floral comforter. The empty dresser. The prefab particleboard nightstand, upon which sat a lamp, a box of tissues, and an old rotary phone.
The phone wasn’t registered in Sal’s name. In fact, the line used to be connected to his neighbor’s teenage daughter’s room. When their house was foreclosed on years ago during the recession, he had surreptitiously had it rerouted and set the bill to auto-deduct from an online checking account opened for just that purpose. The former was a simple matter of redirecting a single wire; the latter, snatching a bill from his neighbor’s mailbox and calling the phone company to update the payment method. Committing fraud to get money out of major corporations is a tricky business, but committing fraud to give them money is easy, because they never think to question getting paid.
Sal stepped into the bedroom and shut the door, muffling Izzie’s halting notes but not silencing them entirely. The phone continued to ring, as he knew it would until he picked it up. He fished around inside the tissue box on the nightstand and pulled out a small electronic device the size of two stacked decks of cards: an audio jammer. Its textured black plastic surface was perforated at one end to accommodate an internal speaker, and its controls consisted of a single on/off/volume knob on the side. It was powered by a nine-volt battery and had cost him a little over a hundred bucks—from Amazon, if you can believe it.
He turned it on and cranked the volume up. The sound of static filled the room, not so loud as to be intolerable but loud enough to render useless any listening devices within a hundred and fifty feet. Then, finally, he picked up the receiver. “Yeah?”
See? I feinted toward the expected and then pivoted into uncharted territory—and I did so by recognizing that the scene as I initially conceived it was a little lazy and obvious, and deciding to intentionally upend it. I love how the scene turned out, and I never would have gotten there if I hadn’t used my first idea to inform my second.
In some ways, all of RED RIGHT HAND feels like a second idea to me. While I’d like to think THE KILLING KIND was anything but lazy, the idea behind it was fairly obvious: a hitman who only kills other hitmen. In RED RIGHT HAND, I try to push past that while still honoring the premise of the series. The result, I think, is a richer, more emotionally complex novel. Time will tell if my audience agrees.
Chris Holm is the author of the Collector trilogy, which blends crime and fantasy, and the Michael Hendricks thrillers. His first Hendricks novel, THE KILLING KIND, was nominated for an Anthony, a Barry, a Lefty, and a Macavity Award and named a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Boston Globe Best Book of 2015, and Strand Magazine’s #1 Book of 2015. Hendricks returns September 13th in RED RIGHT HAND. For more about Chris, including links to his Twitter profile and Facebook page, visit www.chrisholmbooks.com.
To learn more about RED RIGHT HAND, click on the cover below: