I recently finished a book by the crime writer Jim Thompson. If his name is unfamiliar to you, you may have seen one of the films of one of his books: The Getaway, The Grifters or The Killer Inside Me. Or maybe you saw his scripts filmed by Stanley Kubrick: The Killing or Paths of Glory. Or maybe this is the first time you’re hearing about him.
His stories are peopled with characters who are so twisted, so damaged that one cannot turn away from the story. It’s like each person he’s writing is such a train wreck that to not look is impossible. Pop. 1280 is the most twisted thing I’ve read since The Killer Inside Me. In Killer, you’re as involved as the main character in every depraved act that’s committed, complicit in the crimes. The same is true in 1280, but he adds a layer of racism that’s beyond uncomfortable and it’s even uncomfortable in the mind of the narrator.
Each book, written in first person, puts the reader deep inside a main character’s insidious brain squirming with creeping tendrils of evil and malice disguised as rational thought. It’s unnerving, to say the least. I couldn’t stop reading. I had to know what was going to happen next.
Dropping compelling characters into bizarre circumstances is certainly one way to keep me engaged in a story and Pop. 1280 is a master class in how to do it. Each chapter ends not just on a cliffhanger, but with the expectation that while that may be a nice place to stop you’d better not. If you do — well, let’s just say that no matter what you think might happen next it won’t hold a candle to what does happen. It’s not the shock value that kept me reading, it was that the darker the places his characters went the more it made sense. He drew me deeply into those parts of my psyche that I don’t often go.
In comic books ending a scene at the bottom of a page is one way to ensure that the reader turns past the full-page ad for sneakers you can’t afford in order to find out what happens next. With prose that’s a lot harder. Unless the writer knows ahead of time what the format of the book will be and even then it’s going to be a crapshoot, I think.
No, in prose one must ensure reader engagement with deeply interesting characters in strange places, though those places may be familiar on the surface. Piling trouble after trouble after trouble on top of one’s characters will keep them interesting. Ending each chapter with an as-yet unanswered question should finish the job.
There aren’t a lot of long paragraphs in his stories, either. Compared to my current read (The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist), Thompson’s pulp noir reads so quickly that it hardly seems any time has gone by when one thinks to look at the clock. The opposite, of course, is true. The dialogue is so conversational, so colloquial, and realistic that the only other writer whose style is even close is Elmore Leonard’s (contemporary of Thompson) though he isn’t nearly as bent.
It’s a matter of getting what’s in the writer’s head out on the page. That’s what will keep a reader engaged and hopefully get him lost in the story. I urge you to seek out Thompson’s work but be prepared to squirm a lot while you read. You may see yourself somewhere in there.