Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Writing crime fiction - a couple of ideas and some advice

Writing Crime Fiction

This post looks at the writing of crime fiction, which is based on various panels and workshops I've been involved in. I also talk about writing romance fiction at writing and reading festivals. While my novels are described as crime.comedy.romance, chick lit, screwball comedies, light crime, or popular fiction, they have elements or romance, crime and chick lit in them, so I hope you'll forgive the fact thtat my advice comes from many years writing light crime, rather than the hard crime work of such excellent wrtiers as Patricia Cornwall or Kathy Reichs. I don't have the stomach to write such work and I can't seem to avoid being a little sarcastic and light-hearted about both crime and romance, which is ironic really, seeing as both of those things can really be pretty dangerous.... Possibly it's a defensive move, but I enjoy writing "screwball crime comedy capers" and enjoyment means I write better, and more, so as long as I have readers, i'll keep doing it. For anyone interested in writing hard crime, i hope this this article is also of use...

Crime fiction is very popular with publishers and readers. If you love reading crime fiction, you’d probably enjoy writing your own. Read your favourite writers, and work out how they ‘did it’. Plot it backwards and see where and when and how the clues, issues and instincts of the main character have come into play. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was not to write what you know, but to write what you love. If you love writing a certain genre then inevitably you should end up spending more time writing, the quality of the work is sure to improve and the likelihood of others reading it (i.e. getting published) is higher.

In crime fiction you certainly want to write and read, a page-turner but also something that is convincing. Loving the situation, genre and at least a few of the characters will enable both you and your reader to engage with the story and the manuscript will be more successful. Many crime readers have favourite authors and with the name branding that is so common in this genre, new, prolific authors in this genre are always being sought. In crime fiction there might be a certain basic couple of requests (death, action, suspense, drama, twists and turns, good conquering evil, etc) but you can also apply your own ideas, characters and style within that structure. And that’s really where the fun starts.

As a genre, it deals with the psychology of characters, and exploring the human condition intrigues both reader and writer. The reasons why people act in certain ways, how they can be so cruel or brave or capable in a crisis can be fascinating. Our notions of safety and danger, both personal and social, can be studied in stories about police procedure or private eye investigations. There is an element of wish fulfilment in writing crime fiction also. It's worthwhile to think about what you like to read yourself. Writing in like vein, and then rewriting and editing makes the process more enjoyable.

Many sub-genres exist, such as:

• amateur sleuthing
• semi-professional/ professional private eye
• an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances
• stumbling across a body
• police procedural
• hard-boiled gumshoe
• humour.

Points to note in writing a good crime novel:

Pace and action

Most of the pace and action arises from someone getting killed or threatened with death, or the central character having to solve a case related to one or the other. By reading a good crime novel and solving its structure, you can learn to plot- backwards. Map out exactly what happened and see how the author has created intrigue.


Readers need to be able to identify with your protagonist and thus with the perils and successes s/he experiences; so s/he must have intelligence, certain skills, honed intuition. An unsympathetic leading character is a challenge for both reader and writer. Strong characters give substance to the plot, which itself only works if you care about what happens next. Keep your main character active and involved. Being always central, s/he creates the excitement, so things stay thrilling and enticing, consistently moving and driving the plot.


There must be conflict, both internal and external.

Internal (within characters): What do they want? What are their goals and motivations? What makes you want to read about them and want them to succeed-or not, as in the case of the perpetrator of the crime or the enemy?

External: What drives the plot to make it so exciting? Obstacles in the way of both perpetrator and hero/ine have to be legitimate, believable and logical. Effective conflict puts your likeable characters in seemingly impossible situations and forces them to find a solution to such problems as saving themselves or the world or someone else, or solving the crime, or finding they are in a race against time. Ask yourself what is at stake: a reputation, people's lives, the world, those close to the main character, or the protagonist him/herself.


Motivation, like conflict, needs to be established early in the story. How do you get your readers on the edge of their seats? You must put them inside the heads of your characters and yearning for resolution of conflict/s. You-the writer-must know what they-the characters-want, but also what you want them to get. To this end, introduce the central and supporting characters early and ensure you determine their relationships with each other.


The setting must be established as soon as possible. Rather than tell your readers the house was ugly - describe it, using as many senses as you can. It is important to create the background to the story so the reader can picture it. Use the principle that less is better than more; don't overload the reader with superfluous detail.


You have to write as though you believe in your characters so the reader feels the same way. They have to change along the way; their development is important. What is their psychological profile, their makeup, background and view of the world? Do they ring true? What sort of relationships do they have with those around them? Are they in genuine conflict with someone as motivated as they are? At the end, a character will have made some discovery about her/ himself, thus adding to the reader's satisfaction and enjoyment. The change could be professional in nature, or psychological, or romantic. Allow an intimate understanding of at least one character, then focus on his/her personal development - always slightly larger than life in fiction.


Suspense needs to be created and maintained throughout, for it feeds on character development. Without knowing- and thus caring- about the characters, it is very difficult to create suspense with conviction.

A victim

A victim needs to be more than just a body; make him/her a human being. When you know what this person and her/his family have lost, you will have a much more powerful motivation for the central character. Allow your reader to empathise with the victim. Death, violence and injury must be shown effectively, even if TV and the movies have numbed us to them. The writer must therefore work harder to make them seem real for the reader.

Bad guys

Are your bad guys as real as your good guys? There is always some aspect of reality about the best villains. If you can recognise the humanity in them and can see what they were or could be (e.g. Anakin Skywalker turning into Darth Vader), then you can see what has been lost, why they are evil, what changed them. Think of a real crime that stuck in your mind. Often it is a study of why and how people do illegal, immoral or otherwise evil deeds. No-one knows what s/he is capable of under certain conditions. Films like ‘A Simple Plan’ or ‘Alive’ exemplify this.

Point of view

Point of view needs to be established, as well as understanding the demands of it.

Who sees and/or knows what is essential to the plot? It is necessary to get it right to ensure the investigation happens as it should, along with any red herrings.


A plot only works if you care about what happens next. A great plot, however, can seem empty without strong characters to give it substance. Write what you enjoy and what enhances your own development, but keep in mind your limitations. Research can be fun to find out what you are not sure about. Your subplot should link to the main plot, involve secondary characters and, to a lesser extent, main characters. It should interweave with the central plot.


Establish back-story so that it has an effect on the present story. Allow coincidences, but only when they advance the plot, not when they solve the crime completely or make the central character appear merely lucky rather than clever. Any back-story introduced separately needs to have been a powerful event in the main character's life to affect him/her in the present; it must be believable and have impact. It may well involve a villain or other secondary characters. Establish early such things as one character knowing something, such as a security code, where the villain lives, how to pick a lock etc. During dialogue and action scenes, readers are paying peak attention and absorbing information. Use that opportunity to distribute important data that will be needed later, for instance, perpetrator's background, villain's phobia, victim's psychological profile etc.


Dialogue reveals characters, situations and nuances- both in the characters themselves and the plot. The reader can get a lot of information from conversations. Study dialogue. Its usage always discloses much about motivations of characters, their secret feelings towards other characters, their backgrounds and verbal habits. Effective dialogue is a very powerful way to show character instead of merely telling the reader. Speech patterns, once established, will enable the reader to distinguish one character from another without the use of too much attribution.

The ending

Though the ending may have been anticipated by the readers, make sure there is always something they didn't see coming, such as romance, action, betrayal etc. Leave the reader satisfied. The ending has to be consistent with the rest of the book, but also surprising, credible and unique. A complex, thrilling plot that suddenly ties up neatly in the final ten minutes can seem unreal. Some things can be left unresolved, but tie up all the central threads.

General hints:

It's your interpretation of the story that is the attraction. Make the story and the characters exciting for yourself and for the reader through your vision, your unique interpretation of the world.

Try to keep the action moving, the intrigue alive and the characters active, so that the reader keeps on reading. There must be places (built on the inherent suspense and excitement) where the reader can take a break and catch his/her breath between the action sequences to see the personal side of the characters.

Throw in a curveball whenever things get slow. I tend to know when to do this because, as a writer, I’m feeling things are too cosy. There’s a market for cosy novels but very little room or patience for this in crime fiction . What would make things really difficult for the protagonist? How will s/he get out of the present situation? Challenge both yourself and the reader. Admiration for a central character builds the connection between reader and author.

Be very wary of trying to promote an idea or a philosophy. Don't preach to your readers; instead, just plunge them right in, and let the story and the characters reveal themselves rather than telling the reader outright.

Romantic interests and friendships are important as human elements bring characters to life. Unresolved sexual tension (as in 'X-Files', 'Moonlighting') help to maintain reader interest.

Writing tips:

# 1. Try to end each writing session at a juicy point. If you stop and abandon it when you are stuck, or at the end of a chapter, it's much harder to return and take up where you left off. This helps you to look forward to your writing.

#2. Have a note pad nearby, both when writing and editing. Note down places where you have to go back to re-emphasise a clue or a character nuance, but keep going. Read the story as the reader might.

#3. Observe industry guidelines; find out what an editor or agent wants from you. An average manuscript is 300 to 400 double-spaced A4 pages (or around 80,000 words). Many are longer, but rarely shorter.

#4. Keep your story to yourself until you have written it.

#5. Enjoy writing it, set yourself goals and reward yourself. Remember, if you are not being entertained by your story, your readers probably won't be either.

Kirsty Brooks is the author of five crime/comedy/romance novels. She is the director of Driftwood Manuscripts, an assessment service for writers. This article appears in slightly different format in the South Australian Writers' Handbook


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