by AlterEgo Associate Creative Director, Erica Kern
We are in the midst of a true crime wave. While networks such as Investigation Discovery and TruTV have long tapped into the twisted psyche that keeps viewers glued to their screens with shows such as Homicide Hunter and Mystery Detectives, now HBO, FX, PBS, Lifetime, and BBC America along with streaming media giants Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have joined the murder spree. Binge-worthy psychological thrillers and docs like Mindhunter, The Act, Sherlock, Luther, True Detective, American Crime Story, Blacklist, Ozark (the list could go on…) have locked in a borderline obsessive fan base. And why wouldn’t they? From a programming standpoint, this genre is ratings gold. After all, what psychopath starts watching one of these intriguing mysteries and doesn’t wait to find out – whodunnit?
I attribute the ripple that started this wave to the absolutely addictive first season of the acclaimed NPR podcast, Serial. People could not stop talking about it. If you have somehow missed out, start the download now and listen – but only after you’ve finished reading this blog post. I digress…so just what made this podcast so compelling? Their approach to storytelling. It’s personal. It’s emotional. It’s real. It was so effective, it caught on as Netflix brought it to the documentary television medium with Making a Murderer.
But as any seasoned marketer knows, a shows success depends on those advertising dollars. And what’s most interesting to me, is that this pop culture phenomenon is changing advertiser perceptions of this previously too taboo genre. Let’s face it, Tide doesn’t want its squeaky-clean image bloodstained – even if it would be the best detergent for the job. But a seismic shift in the storytelling surrounding this content has opened new doors. While we will always have to worry about the blood and the bodies and the guns, they’re far more marketable when entrenched in a good story.
So how do we promo writers surf this true crime wave? I give you my top 5 tips:
1. Everyone has a dark side. Find yours.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working on true crime promos over the past decade is that there are some really terrible people out there. And those terrible people do things that I could never even think of on my darkest days. Which is why you need inspiration! Read mysteries, listen to true crime podcasts, explore the sinister side of the fine arts, listen to music that speaks to this newfound side of yourself. Exploring complementary arts focuses my mind on the mood and tone that I want to conjure. Once in the right head space, the words tend to flow.
2. Case the competition.
One of the first things I do when I get a new assignment is see what else is out there. When you stalk the competition, you find out what you’re up against. It can’t hurt to crowd source multiple campaigns and millions in marketing spend to build greater insight into what resonates with your audience. Breaking down multiple promos and trailers to analyze them allows me to spot themes, trends and techniques being used within the true crime genre as well as identify what is and isn’t effective. All of these insights are valuable in building a better foundation for my own promo script.
3. Connect crime with passion.
Going back to that revolutionary podcast Serial. From a promo writer’s perspective, I found this series incredibly inspirational. The nuance and emotion of the story sucks you in immediately. And what I found so impressive is that you don’t even have to ever see the characters, the setting or the crime scene to feel their anguish, fear and compassion (although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t Google them). As someone who relies on both picture and words to tell stories, this refreshing approach to true crime shifted the focus in my writing to allowing people to tell their own stories. They know their stories best and nobody can sell it more convincingly than them.
Employing emotional marketing among the typical true crime target audience, primarily women ages 25-54, is particularly effective. While not everyone has had a family member or loved one murdered, most people feel a human connection and relate to the anger and grief associated with the loss of someone close to them. Developed perceptively, this connection builds a loyal and passionate fan base. Not to mention the two-fold benefit of being an advertiser friendly approach. People sharing their feelings about a horrific crime is far more appealing than overtly detailing these violent acts.
4. Snitches get stitches – sometimes it’s better to leave certain things unsaid.
Now that we agree that tapping into people’s emotions is key to writing a true crime promo, can we also agree that voiceover is a jarring to interruption to the emotional build you are developing? In television we have the benefit of visuals. I suggest you use them to your advantage.
Text card driven copy is a very successful tool that can and should be used. While a shows characters, or often in my case real people, can get to the heart of the story, in marketing we are also looking to distinguish the series from all of that competition that we just watched while connecting with our dark side. But oftentimes the show content you are working with doesn’t directly deliver on the positioning statement found in the creative brief. This is where text cards can be key for driving your message, reinforced by impactful emotionally driven soundbites.
Their placement within your script is also an important consideration. Are they spread out evenly to lead the story? Perhaps they are centralized in one place to leave room for your soundbites to drive the story forward instead. Maybe you are looking for a dramatic rapid-fire build at the end to leave viewers surprised by what just hit them. Regardless of what approach you choose, the pacing of text is integral to helping you shape the mood, tone and overall style of your promo.
5. Serial killers have patterns…and so do I when writing for true crime.
I often equate promo writing to a newspaper lead. No matter the show, you want to tell people the who, what and when of a story and where and why to watch. But unlike journalism, promo writing has creative license. Universal to promo writing, we straddle the line between being direct and metaphorically clever. But the true crime genre provides its own challenge – talk about murder, but don’t talk about murder. Not too graphic, nothing gory. The goal is to walk the line of intrigue without crossing into the territory of insensitivity.
I’ve found that tying language to your visuals aids in finding this delicate balance. As with any television script, you are considering both video and audio. Your writing is only enhanced when you are able to envision and articulate what is unique about that show in a way that complements what the viewer is seeing on screen.
I once worked on a show about a man on death row who was facing the verdict of his last and final appeal. In order to convey the desperation and immediacy surrounding the man’s plight we pitched a script that focused on how this man was living on borrowed time, paired with a text card build featuring hourglass imagery.
Another project featured the nationally covered story of a young man who was killed in a rural Louisiana town and his family’s fight for justice in the face of a corrupt and racist police department. The town grew sugar that was set ablaze come harvest. Visuals of this were featured prominently in the series and inspired script copy, “A Town/Fueled by a divided past/Catches fire.”
Writing with the visual story and design in mind only furthers your art and strengthens your creative.
As with all promo writing the classic rule of three is a solid standby when writing for true crime, but another technique I have found helpful and effective is twisting the turn of phrase. Why? When your brain expects a familiar expression, the unanticipated change leaves your viewer sitting with that unsettling feeling that you are often hoping to evoke while writing for true crime. “The world’s most eligible…serial killer.” Wait, what is that about? And now you’ve hooked ‘em.
Last but not least – the cliffhanger. More so than with other television genres, the cliffhanger is essential to a strong true crime promo. Unlike other programming audiences, solving the puzzle, figuring out what happened, drives these viewers. Leaving them asking questions and wanting to know more compels them to watch and ultimately marks the success of your campaign.
But enough about writing. What’s the most important thing that I’ve learned after over a decade of watching true crime shows and writing true crime promos?
They never get away with it –
But I just might.