Coben shares creative vision in Cannes

Andy Fry
By Andy Fry
April 6, 2016

The Writers Room
Harlan Coben at MipTV this week
Harlan Coben at MipTV this week

Crime novelist Harlan Coben was at MipTV in Cannes this week to promote his new series The Five, created in partnership with Red Production Company for UK pay TV channel Sky1.

While in town he also took 30 minutes out of his schedule to take part in a keynote interview. Articulate and witty, he provided plenty of food for thought for would-be novelists and screenwriters in the audience.

He is, for example, refreshingly honest about his status as a writer. Asked about his influences, he expressed irritation at writers who talk as though they haven’t lived through the modern era: “Ask a lot of writers about their influences and they’ll say Milton, Shakespeare, the great philosophers, but that’s all nonsense. I was influenced as much by the old Batman series as anything, the TV shows I grew up with.”

This may explain why Coben has found it relatively easy to convert himself from a novelist (28 novels, 60 million book sales worldwide) into a TV writer: “I’ve always seen my books as quite visual – though I didn’t realise how visual you could be with TV until I started working on The Five.”

His books are also packed with dialogue, another symptom common among novelists who have grown up in the TV era. His emphasis on dialogue that works hard is another factor that has made the jump to TV achievable: “I’ve always believed dialogue has to serve more than one purpose in a book, and it’s the same for a TV show. It’s advancing the plot, but it has also got to tell you something about the character and create mood. If your dialogue isn’t doing at least two of these things, you should get rid of it.”

The Five follows a group of childhood friends who are reunited after a murder
The Five follows a group of childhood friends who are reunited after a murder

A lot is written about the difference between the internalised world of the novel and the way TV plot and character development are moved forward through action. But Coben focused more on the way novel-writing is a solitary occupation whereas TV is collaborative.

He enjoyed the fact that, with The Five, his original idea was refracted through the prisms of other people’s perspectives: “I planted the seed and someone else is taking care of the tree. For me, that’s exciting. It’s cool that I had this idea in Jersey where I live and now this wonderful cast, crew and production team have turned it into this glorious thing. I’m not just seeing my interpretation but a lot of people’s work.”

That said, it’s not an accident that Coben’s TV work to date has involved European partners – before The Five, he adapted one of his novels, No Second Chance, for TF1 in France

Obsessive about his work, he told delegates that Sky and TF1 were more willing to allow him to present his vision than the Hollywood system would have been: “That’s important to me. We might succeed or fail with The Five, but a least I know the end result is based on my vision.”

Cohen is unabashedly commercial and expresses annoyance with writers who say they only write for themselves: “That’s like one hand clapping, or saying I only talk to myself. What we do, books or TV, is all about communication. I chase readers/viewers because I want my stories to move them, to keep them up at night. No one wants to make a TV series that isn’t watched by anyone.”

TF1's No Second Chance
TF1’s No Second Chance

Although he has good dialogue with his fans, he says he tries not to be too influenced by their opinions: “If a consistent message was coming back from them, I’d probably listen – but there never is. I appreciate my fans, but it’s a mistake to write by committee. We’re not as good when we try to do what people want. My job is to take fans where they don’t necessarily know they want to go. I don’t look at the data and try to respond. If I see that my books are popular in Bulgaria, I don’t add a Bulgarian character in the next one. I write about what I know. The more specific you are with your creative vision, the more universal the appeal.”

Coben focused more on the similarities between books and TV than the differences, comparing The Five to a novel on TV – with “10 chapters, and a real end, no cliffhangers – because that’s unfair on the audience. I want them to like the show enough they come back for the next one. At the end of the day, both forms come down to storytelling and that’s how it’s been since the caveman era. You tell a story; if you’re boring, someone picks up a club and kills you.”

Despite his sales success, Coben talked about the anxiety and constant self-doubt that comes with being a writer: “I’m still learning how to write novels. Part of being a writer is you’re immensely insecure and always think you suck. And every day, that brings me back… when you lose that doubt, that’s when you call it a day. Only bad writers think they’re good. You need that angst to make your stuff better.”

Continuing this theme, he advised fellow creators to avoid reading reviews on platforms like Amazon: “It’s like reading the comments section below a news story. Don’t do it!”

Aside from The Five, Coben has now launched a TV company with Red’s Nicola Shindler called Final Twist, which will make scripted shows based on his books. The first one in development is Six Years.

On working in TV, he added: “This really is the golden age. It’s never been better, there’s never been more variety and there have never been more ways of seeing it. And how lucky are we to work in this business? We get to make TV for a living! We’re not making cardboard boxes for a living. I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this, that’s just so frigging cool!”

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