Everything has gone off without a hitch, with the precious human cargo cleanly spirited away to your secret fortress without a living soul to witness it, and so it is time to relax and enjoy the success, right? Not so fast — all too often, the evildoer intent on making a career of kidnapping and ransoming his or her captives is likely to neglect one of the most important aspects of the operation and that is the composition and delivery of a proper ransom note to the interested parties. This is in fact nothing more than a very specific case of How to issue an ultimatum. There is something in the nature of the evil profession that associates the composition of any sort with drudgery and rebels against it in the same way the villain might have rebelled against school, but the dynamic of hostage-taking is such that it actually represents the vital link between the two opposing sides, without which there can be neither profit nor satisfaction in the final outcome. It is often simply a matter of ignorance on the part of the kidnapper how to come up with an effective structure for their ransom note and how to avoid the most common mistakes, and so we have gathered the best practices for composing these communications in one place for the enlightenment of vicious criminals everywhere.
- Start with a proper salutation. This orients the loved ones to know where the ransom note begins, if it is more than one page, and grabs their attention. You can try the most common opening "Dear," though some feel this lacks the appropriate sense of menace and hint of violence and favor beginings such as “Hey” or “Now listen up!!!” instead. In most cases, so the recipient knows for whom the ransom note is intended, you should follow the salutation with the person's first name and a comma or colon.
- Write an opening paragraph. Tailor your opening to the situation. For example, if you have just bested the royal bodyguard in a big showy military operation, you might begin with the bodycount (on their side) and an account of the continued fine fitness (on your side). If the item you are requesting ransom for is a thing, not a person, be sure to mention this right at the outset along with its current status. Keep this brief, however, for directness, it is usually best to get to the topic of why you are writing the ransom note as soon as practical so there can be no mistaking your intentions.
- Construct the body of the note. Here is where you can express you individuality, both with regard to the status of your captive and what your plans are if your demands are not met. Most ransom notes should be under two pages long, but if you have many hostages or many requirements, you need to plan for a fuller account.
- Craft the closing paragraph. This is traditionally the place where you give the specifics of the ransom or other demands you are interested in seeing the other party carry out, and is often a pitfall for the inexperienced kidnapper as they get too wrapped up in the technical details of the transfer, the time and place of the exchange, or the type of retribution that will occur if any of the requirements are not met. That is likely to bore your reader and may even jeopardize operational security for no good reason. If you are getting too hung up on working out a snappy close, include a brief executive summary in your first ransom note to be fleshed out later in additional communiqués.
- Include a closing. The ransom note form is generally inconsistent with the popular complimentary closing formulations such as “Regards,” “Yours faithfully,” “Love always,” and the like. Some villains prefer to end with threats and insults directed at the recipient, while others feel that this is not the best way to go forward with a good working relationship and would rather emphasize how everyone’s best interest is served by the completion of the ransom demands. Most agree that it should galvanize the reader into action and distinguish the note from a more casual missive for which it might be mistaken. You may sign the note in blue or black ink and print your name under your signature.
- Proofread. After you have cleaned up your prose and written a draft, ask a nontechnical person — for example, your valet or gravedigger — to read the ransom note when it is ready. (Do not choose biased parties such as the hostage or your consort to ensure that the reaction will be sincere.) If it confuses them or leaves them unimpressed, the tone may well be to blame and it should be revised before sending it out. Remember that the passive voice does not suit the role of a kidnapper well and do your utmost to root it out when you find it creeping into your sentences.
Strokes of genius
- Pasted in letters. There are times where you are forced to maintain a certain amount of anonymity during hostage negotiations. This is when the ransom note consisting of letters laboriously glued in from magazines and other printed material is useful, as it disguises the writer’s identity from handwriting analysts and many other forensic techniques. A few examples are illustrated here for your consideration. The disadvantages of this unwieldy format are many, however, so if you are known to the recipient it is worth your while considering whether to type a plain type of ransom note without the added complication.
- Illustrations. As a way to concentrate the mind of the loved one, these are most valuable. These include photos, graphics, video attachments, and other exhibits to illustrate the present condition of your hostage and the proposed consequences of inaction on the part of the recipient. For example, if you are threatening a demise through cannibalism, consider including the recipe you plan to employ. You may use graphs, tables, charts, and flow diagrams but do not overdo it.
- Threats. The section of the note dealing with reprisals and the fate of those who try to thwart you plans, etc., should be specific and forceful to emphasize your seriousness, without giving too much away about your defenses. Once you gain a higher profile as a kidnapper of note, you can trim or cut this section and still get across the desired message.
- Tokens. Consider sending a token of your serious-mindedness along with your note if you are relatively unknown or untrusted. This can range from a biological sample from the hostage to a whiff of the binary nerve agent you have stockpiled ready for use in case you are dissatisfied with the negotiations. Package note and enclosure together securely so that they will not get separated, possibly confounding postal inspectors.
Traps for mere fools
- Rambling. If the letter is spilling onto a second page, it's time to tighten your points and edit the fluff. In any case, it is best not to ramble so that your reader is continually engaged with the train of your thought. The loved one or institution needs to know what they need to do for you, so sell your plan and your capabilities in a positive and economical way.
- Empty posturing. Your tone should be upbeat, dignified, and informative. Credibility requires that any misdeeds you promise are the kind you can actually envision performing if the need arises. Steer clear of colloquialisms which may take away from your professional and educated persona and which may disorient your readers.
- Misspellings. Check also for the most common grammatical mistakes and errors of punctuation. It may not be fair, but these are often interpreted as signs that the writer is not sufficiently serious.
- Plagiarism. Some villains are tempted to take an existing ransom note and change the names and other details around somewhat in order to save the effort. While it is possible to get away with this undetected, the risk of being made a public fool is very steep In this day of instant communication through the Internet. You may look to some classic ransom note models, but be sure that you do not simply copy them and pass the results off as your own.
- Principles. Some individuals will refuse to deal with kidnappers regardless of the personal cost, out of some kind of moral conviction. The more you attempt to bargain with them publicly the more they will dig in their heels and restate their stance and you will likely get nowhere with them. Before you plan your kidnapping scheme, identify when this is likely to occur and rethink your strategy. Perhaps a direct attack on the moneybags accompanied by standard torture will be a more effective way to achieve your goals.
Precious and needful
- Courier. Ransom notes are best hand delivered, not sent through US mail.
- Strunk and White.
- No. 10 envelopes.
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