10 top tips for crime writers
Crime fiction is a perennial favourite for both readers and writers, but it’s one of the most difficult genres to master. Here are my top ten tips for aspiring crime novelists, to help you turn your ideas into a compelling mystery.
Writing Crime Fiction9 September 2019
- Broaden your palette of techniques
- Master suspense and add intrigue to your plotlines and characterisation
- Explore a new genre and assess your potential
Crime fiction is a crowded market, and it takes something special to be able to break through. Here are ten tips which will help you perfect your writing and stand out from the crowd.
What’s a mystery without secrets? Crime fiction relies on the withholding of information to build tension. Without doing this, stories can seem like simple lists of events – remember, you’re not writing a police report, you’re writing a novel. Don’t underestimate your reader, either. They’ll be on the lookout for any clues you give them, so be subtle and sparing with them. You don’t want them guessing the culprit twenty pages into the book.
Now, this is down to taste, but successful crime fiction depends upon the emotional engagement of the reader. As I mention in this previous article, part of our fascination with the genre comes from the inside perspective we get to the solving of crimes. If you get too fantastical, or your set-pieces are too overblown, the reader is likely not to be able to relate. As former Writing Crime Fiction guest tutor and prize-winning crime author Sarah Hilary says, her books have proved popular because they ‘contain dangers [the reader] can imagine’.
Crime fiction’s genre conventions and fairly standardised structure provide the perfect framework to explore different issues, while still maintaining the reader’s engagement.
Go to events
Writing the book is one thing, but getting it out in the real world is another. Going to crime writing festivals and events is one of the best ways to network, and you’ll have the chance to interact with your favourite authors. With workshops, readings and Q&As, these events are invaluable to the aspiring writer.
Explore different issues
Your reader will appreciate any extra depth you give to your book. A cut-and-dry murder-mystery might prove entertaining, but it could be treated as a throwaway read. Additional themes will make you writing seem more ‘literary’, and crime fiction’s genre conventions and fairly standardised structure provide the perfect framework to explore different issues, while still maintaining the reader’s engagement. What you explore is up to you – it could be femininity, race, politics, anything really – but make sure it doesn’t overshadow the plot. In the end you have one job: to entertain the reader. The rest is gravy.
This might seem rather obvious, but it’s easy to subconsciously take elements from books you’ve read and films you’ve seen, and insert them into your own writing. Taking inspiration is fine – no book is an island – but in a genre that relies so heavily on intrigue, twists, and surprises, it’s no good having your reader unravel your plot halfway through because they remember it from that episode of Dexter.
How many Philip Marlowe clones have you read; jaded, drunk, but brilliant? There’s nothing stopping you from creating another, but your reader will thank you for a fresh take on the detective.
Keep your plot tight
This is absolutely crucial, as your readers will be analysing every action and event in your book in relation to others. You’ve got to make sure your plot is watertight, because any leaks will be noticed. You’re writing about crime. Your story should be able to stand up in court.
Keeping your plot tight is important, but don’t let that trick you into thinking it can be simple, either. In such a congested genre, near enough everything has been done before, so you’ve got to work hard for your plot to both be interesting and still make sense. Your writing style will benefit from being kept crisp, though. Write simply about complex things.
Have a compelling detective
A convention of crime fiction is that we follow a ‘detective’ character throughout the book. They’re not necessarily a police officer, or even a PI – just as often, they’re a civilian intimately linked to the crime that’s been committed. Either way, they’re who we’ll be seeing the most of, so they’ve got to be interesting. They could be crude, cheerful, nasty or unhinged, but they’ll never be perfect.
Be aware of common cliches and tropes, too. How many Philip Marlowe clones have you read; jaded, drunk, but brilliant? There’s nothing stopping you from creating another, but your reader will thank you for a fresh take on the detective.
Also, they’ll often have their own story that runs alongside the main plot of the book, and the two may or may not come together later. This is especially important if you’re thinking of writing a series. Each novel’s crime will usually be discrete, while the detective’s story arc links the books together.
The more widely you read, the more you’ll understand how stories are crafted and what makes them work.
‘A good writer is a good reader’. That’s pretty much our motto. The more widely you read, the more you’ll understand how stories are crafted and what makes them work – and you’ll also find it easier to spot those cliches when they creep into your writing. When you’re reading, think about certain elements and techniques that are being used that you think are especially effective – or that you really dislike. Keep these in mind when you write, and consider how you can improve your own writing in light of this.
Simple, but essential. Just keep writing. No writer gets published on a first draft, especially in a genre where structure and plotting is so important, but the more experience you have the easier it will be for you to coherently get your ideas down before you begin editing. Write short stories. Write character sketches. Write in different genres. The more well-rounded and practised you are, the better your work will be.