Ten mistakes all crime writers should avoid
Introduction to Writing Crime Fiction guest tutor and novelist Julia Crouch shares the top ten mistakes crime writers make —and how to avoid them.
- Master the conventions of crime fiction
- Create compelling characters
- Inject suspense into your writing
Crime writing is one of the most popular genres of fiction, the market is a full one, and there are countless pitfalls that can trouble even experienced writers. So, without further ado, here are my top ten mistakes crime writers make, and how to avoid them:
1: Telling too much
You only need to tell the reader as much as they need to know. Anything else is padding. Prune!
2: Telling at the wrong time
Hold your cards back as long as possible. Do not spend your first three chapters telling us all about your village, the people who live in it and what makes them tick. Let us discover as we read. Drip-feed your information. In no genre is this more important than crime fiction.
3: Holding on to the truth
There comes a point, however, where you have to tell the reader what is going on. If you hold back too long, you are committing wilful obstruction. You may have a character in denial, or you may have a character who can’t remember because of trauma, or alcohol, or dementia. But, it takes a lot of skill to keep those mystery balls up in the air for as long as possible without it coming across as forced or engineered. Knowing this is halfway towards winning the battle.
A common mistake is to let your plot dictate your characters.
4: Getting the balance wrong between plot and character
With crime fiction, not only do you have to create an entirely believable, fully realised world, with characters that live so vividly that they appear to step off the page and dialogue that sings, you also have to craft a gripping, usually twisting, plot that will keep the reader guessing – all in prose that appears to be effortless.
The key thing to remember is that all these elements have to exist in harmony with one another. A common mistake is to let your plot dictate your characters. Too often we see a twist that seems to rely on a complete volte face in the protagonist’s character: they act out of character in order to conform to the plot. You may try to justify this shift – say, a sudden burst of violence – to yourself by saying that this is a hereto undiscovered facet of their character, but you’ll only be kidding yourself.
If anything, the development of your novel should be approached from the other end: plot should arise out of character. If, for example, your first-person protagonist turns out not to be the person we were trusting all along, we have to be able to recall – and we may not have realised it when we first read it – that the germ of that twist existed right at the very beginning of the novel.
5: Inconsequential red herrings
Every single object, event, character, chapter and sentence is there to advance your story. It’s easy, when writing, to get sidetracked into scenes, characters, events and dialogue that aren’t essential. These can often be useful explorations for your writing process, but they should never find their way into the finished novel.
When you are editing, you must ask yourself the same, brutal question about every aspect of your novel: ‘does this advance my story?’
If the answer is ‘no’, however wonderful it is, however much fun you had writing it, it must go. Everything must link causally to your plot. A misleading, inconsequential distraction is at best dissatisfying and, at worst, downright annoying for the reader.
6: Indulging the stereotypes of crime fiction
In order to write great crime fiction, you should be an avid reader of the genre. This will mean that you understand the tropes and themes. If, for example, you create a conflicted middle-aged male police detective who has problems with drinking, commitment and his marriage, and a tortured, non-relationship with a younger, attractive young female detective working on the same case as him who is somehow (inexplicably) attracted to him, then this should be coming from a place of knowing that this character is something of a stereotype, and that you are aiming to do something different, or possibly providing a commentary on said stereotype. If you just serve him up as he is, you are, essentially, just rehashing.
If you include police procedure in your novel, then you have to do your research.
7: Lacking empathy for the victim
I, and many other readers of crime fiction (and remember 80% of us are women), are sick of semi-pornographic descriptions of female suffering, mutilation and passivity. For God’s sake, give us something different. At least give your victim a greater existence than just being blank pages for your male aggressors.
The most powerful crime fiction can be as gory and horrifying as you like, but still give us an all-round emotional experience while packing a powerful moral punch. In The Long Fall, my protagonist is raped. It took a lot of work for me to get it right. I saw it entirely from within her, rather than from the outside. I was with her all the way. The crime has long lasting effects on her – it stays with her for her entire life. That is truth, and it worked very well for my story, too.
8: Not enough research – especially the police stuff
I rarely, if ever, include police procedure in my novels. However, I have many friends who are crime fiction writers who are ex-police, and they get incensed when writers get it wrong. If you include police procedure in your novel, then you have to do your research. Factual errors can easily be picked up by mistakenly thinking that watching TV series (which also contain these errors) constitutes research. Don’t do that!
Getting it wrong can completely ruin the integrity of your story.
You owe it to your readers, therefore, to get it right. This applies to all areas of your novel, of course, not just the police, although the processes of law and order are governed by rules and so therefore are less malleable than, say, understanding what it must be like to work in a graphic design studio, or to work as a hairdresser. But, it does no harm to glean something of an understanding about what any world you depict in your novel entails.
9: Doing too much research
The downside about doing the background work is that it is also all too easy to get lost down a research hole, spending days discovering stuff that you really don’t need to know. I tend to approach my research on a need-to-know basis – I’ll find out the facts I need to make my story real, and that is dictated by what happens as I write . Currently, for example, I am finding out about the magical properties of Southern Mediterranean herbs. The very worst thing is to include too much detail, just because you have sweated blood (or lost two entire days to Google) to find it out. See point 1, above.
10: Messing up your timeline
A big part of crime fiction – and the most satisfying aspect for the reader – is about providing facts with which your reader can start making their own surmises and conclusions. So, as the author, it is vital that not only do you get your research-based facts right, you also have to get your story facts right.
When I’m writing I use Aeon Timeline to organise my plot, and every new event is assigned a date and time which I can refer back to it as I’m piling on the story. This is incredibly useful in many ways. Obviously, it stops – or at least lessens – the chances of me making massive errors. But also, as the diary of events stacks up, and I can see the relationships between them, the story really starts to come alive for me. And that means it will come alive for the reader.