The last online ‘five top tips’ piece I wrote received a lot of favourable feedback, but I did get one snark: ‘There are always these five top tip creative writing articles all over the internet. It’s so glib.’ So, to counter that criticism, I give you not five, but six top tips!
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Fill it all with conflict
Conflict is the root of all drama. In no genre is this more apparent than crime fiction. Fill your story with conflict – the obstacles standing in the way of your protagonist, the conflicts inside their head, their moral/ethical conflicts, the opposition of other characters, the opposing forces of the setting, the weather, the broken-down car, the bad sex, the drinking, oh, the drinking. Make their life as difficult as possible, then make it just a bit worse.
Cut the waffle
‘One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep’ (Chekhov). Every sentence you write, ask yourself, does this advance my story? If so, how? If so, can I make it better? Weave the cause and effect right into the heart of your novel.
Avoid the deus ex machina
Conversely, don’t just let the gun appear. Use it to build a sense of threat, of foreboding. Make it so the reader will not be able to forget that gun in the corner of the room (and no, the way to do this is not to keep mentioning it). Want to up the tension? Give your character a kitten they need to look after as you put them into their most challenging situation*.
*Don’t literally do this, though, because you’ll get hate mail. You can do what you like to humans, but NEVER TOUCH THE ANIMALS.
Your characters don’t have to be likeable
They just have to be interesting. They could be charming; they could be so dull they are fascinating; they could be so evil they are car-crash watchable. You keep the reader onside by the language your characters use, the things they do, the way they do them, the way people around them react to them. The aim is to get the reader, despite their higher self, siding with your psychopath (e.g. Hannibal Lecter). On the subject of cats, the Hollywood trope is that if you have a character who is going to do something abominable in the second act, in order to get the audience behind them, have them save a cat from a careering truck in the first: instant hero. I play with this with my character Adam in Her Husband’s Lover. Read it and see!
It may seem obvious, but it’s amazing how many people who want to write novels don’t actually read fiction. You want to write crime? Read crime fiction widely and get to understand every sub-genre. Read other genres, too. Read the literary, the schlocky, the classics, the post-modern. And read like a writer – if you don’t like something, or if something doesn’t work, don’t throw the book across the room. Ask yourself, ‘Why isn’t this working?’ ‘How would I do it? Likewise, if something pleases you, work out why.
Get the reader asking questions
Don’t put it all on a plate for them. Every page they turn, your reader should be wondering. Why did that character do that? What’s happened? What’s going to happen next? Even (but use this carefully) What’s happening? Exercise caution, though; you don’t want to baffle your reader. And you have to provide answers before the wondering gets frustrating. It’s a fine line.
Want to know more? NCW’s online creative writing course is a great way to immerse yourself in crime fiction writing. You’ll learn how to develop story ideas, construct a killer plot, fill it with complex, interesting characters, infuse it with tension, handle twists and develop a finished short story. Also, through a series of guided readings and discussions, you will be looking at aspects of crime fiction in action.
You can find even more great tips for Julia in her article How to keep readers gripped.