Five Things: How to Write Compelling Crime Fiction
Former journalist-turned-crime writer Neil Broadfoot exploded onto the Tartan Noir scene with his debut novel, Falling Fast. As he releases his second novel, The Storm, he takes a moment to share some advice for any budding crime novellists out there.
1. Grab the reader’s attention from the start...
For me, the best crime fiction is the story that grabs you from page one and doesn’t let go. Both Falling Fast and The Storm open in, ah, dramatic fashion, which is a deliberate ploy to drag the reader into the action and plunge them into the story from the start. But it doesn’t have to be brutal or action-packed, sometimes a tease will do. One of the best opening sentences to a book ever was a (non-crime) novel by Stephen King, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. The opening was simple and, for me, devastatingly tantalising: “The world had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted”. The moment I read that, I was hooked and just had to know where the story was going to take me.
I dream up and write the stories I'd like to read, and have great fun doing it
2. … but don’t be gratuitous to do it.
As I said, both Falling Fast and The Storm open in dramatic, visceral and, depending on who you ask, traumatic fashion. But neither of these scenes - or any of the graphic violence in my books – are there simply because I could put them there. Whisper it: writing violence and graphically killing people on the page can be fun, but it’s an ends to a means. Crime fiction looks at the darker parts of the human soul, and this can be shocking and grotesque. And it should be. But doing so in a schlocky, look-at-me way demeans both the story you’re trying to tell, the brutality of violent acts and the wider impact they can have. Write bloody and brutal by all means, but make sure it’s to serve the story and it’s justified. Don’t do it just because you can.
3. Do your research – but don’t overdo it.
Grounding your story in reality is vital to creating a compelling and realistic world for the reader. Being a crime writer, this means researching some fairly diverse subjects- from impact injuries (Falling Fast), blunt-force trauma (Falling Fast and The Storm), signs of suffocation (The Storm), firearms and the first Gulf War (The Storm) to body decomposition rates (not telling!). But, once you’ve learned all this, you need to forget it. Remember, you’re writing a novel, not a textbook or a manual, so the facts have to be light touch. They need to serve the story - the worst thing you can do is make the story serve the research so you can show off all the brilliant background work you’ve done on the mating cycle of the Peruvian ground worm or whatever.
4. Don’t fall into character clichés (or, how to avoid bad guys being moustache twiddlers)
Clever situations and complicated plots are brilliant, but unless you’ve got compelling and believable characters then your prose is going to be flatter than a chapter of The Da Vinci Code. Remember, everything that’s happening in the world you’ve created is happening because of the people who inhabit that world. No-one is totally good or totally bad - the only certainty is that people will act in a way that seems right to them and is justifiable in their own heads. You may not agree with the motivations or the rationalisations of your characters (there’s one in Falling Fast that I abhor and was itching to kill all the way through) but you have to give them the freedom to be true to themselves, and let that lead the story where it needs to go.
5. Do write the story you want to write (or, never forget to have fun)
I’ve said this before, and I’m probably paraphrasing someone smarter than I am, but while writing is work for me, it’s never a job. At times it’s a tough slog – especially when you have to admit that your super-intelligent wife was right all along and the story was better with the amendments she suggested – but no matter how tough it gets, it’s still fun. I dream up and write the stories I’d like to read - fast-paced, brutal, with strong characters and enough twists and turns to keep you guessing until the end - and I have great fun doing it. Hopefully, that enthusiasm and energy bleed into the page and through to the reader. If I had to write a sweeping historical epic then that energy would be lost as that type of writing doesn’t interest me, so I’d be doing a job on that book, rather than working to create a story that both the reader and I can enjoy and get swept away in.
Looking for some more writing tips and inspiration? Take a look at our previous Five Things blogs.