The inaugural Curtis Brown Creative crime-writing course took place the weekend before last, and a bunch of eager students came into Curtis Brown’s central London offices for intensive sessions with Orion publishing director Bill Massey, agent Gordon Wise, and authors Meg Gardiner and Steve Mosby (pictured) for advice on how to write good crime fiction.
Writing tips and techniques were thrown around the room like blood at a murder scene, and the next generation of crime novelists returned to their laptops with a set of guidelines to help them create a gripping masterpiece.
Barney Thompson – who attended both Curtis Brown Creative’s novel-writing course and the Crime Writing Weekend – shares his notes on how to write villains, create dialogue and, most importantly, which pitfalls to avoid…
THE GENERAL PRINCIPLES OF CRIME WRITING
Create sympathetic and interesting characters and put them in danger.
Make the tests facing your hero greater and greater until there is no going back.
Crime fiction is about justice and the restoration of justice.
Know what the chase is and cut to it. Begin in the middle – pick a pivotal scene and start there.
Ask a question the readers will want to know the answer to. This could be someone running away – why? Or someone saying ‘Bless me, father, for I have sinned’ – how?
Alternatively, begin with action, then explain how we got there (a technique that Jake Arnott uses to great effect in The Long Firm).
HOW TO WRITE A BEGINNING
What throws your hero and the villain together? What keeps them together? Why do they keep going and why are they unable to quit?
Create a crucible the protagonist can’t get out of or provide reasons they have to keep going. This could be because the pursuit of the criminal is their job (detective, PI, etc). It could be to do with their family, or that they’re in prison (or somewhere they can’t walk away from danger). They might be in the wilderness (there’s no escape from danger or danger is always one step behind).
HOW TO WRITE A MIDDLE SECTION
Keep building the tension and excise all the flab.
Never get a hero out of trouble without putting him into even bigger trouble.
There are several classic tricks a writer can use to build tension. These include time pressure (a ticking bomb, deadline before execution/end of world, etc) or setbacks such as evidence disappearing, witnesses dying or pitfalls emerging. The writer can also increase the threat – either physical or reputational.
Make the plan go wrong.
Don’t end chapters with people going to bed or falling asleep – don’t tie scenes up with a nice little bow. Keep posing questions.
Tighten the connections between characters – family members, rivalries, dependence, betrayal, shared motivations.
Use a surprise when a scene is already tense, not as a way of rescuing a dull scene.
HOW TO WRITE AN ENDING
The ending of a crime novel should be surprising yet inevitable – a classic example of this is the ‘No, Luke, I am your father’ scene at the end of the Star Wars trilogy.
The question that has been hanging in the air should be answered.
Don’t have the antagonist just give up.
Avoid incredulous coincidences that will make the reader groan.
Employ the crunch dilemma: force the hero to choose the lesser of two evils or decide between irreconcilable ‘goods’.
HOW TO CREATE A GREAT VILLAIN
Your villains are the heroes of their own story. They must believe in what they are doing – or have a brilliant reason to do so (this could be ideology, fanaticism, psychopathic tendencies, a desire for revenge, etc).
Many great villains are essentially monsters that cannot see the world straight, but don’t forget that bad guys can be charming, sexy, witty, charismatic and full of energy.
Make sure you give your villain a chink in their armour, too.
HOW TO WRITE CRIME-NOVEL DIALOGUE
Don’t use dialogue as a record of conversation – strip out all the chitchat and back-and-forth of real life. Make your characters’ speech as tense as everything else.
People confess and reveal, but they also lie, misdirect, misunderstand or fail to speak their unconscious desires.
Remember that your characters have different scripts with different stories and information.
HOW TO CREATE TENSION
Needle the reader with anxious uncertainty. Inflict tension on them. Writers are troublemakers, so don’t let readers off the hook.
Put your characters in real danger, but with a ray of hope.
Don’t put your characters in danger that can be avoided – ie, don’t make them go into the woods without a torch and a gun if they have them. Otherwise they just come across as stupid.
Create a ‘clock’ for the reader. This could be anything from a ticking time bomb to a deadline before a hostage is executed, etc.
Create danger for subsidiary characters – people who need rescuing, for example.
HOW NOT TO WRITE CRIME FICTION
Don’t front load your book with information you think is crucial. Let it leak out gradually.
Avoid using dreams.
Don’t use flashbacks as an easy way of infodumping.
Don’t use dialogue as a record of conversations – take out all the chitchat and keep it as tense and unexpected as everything else.
Avoid the cliché of making your characters celebrities, rock stars or prostitutes.
AND ONE FINAL TIP:
Keep a record of what the reader knows chapter by chapter – so you have a cumulative plot to go with your scene-by-scene plan and overarching plot!
TIPS FROM CRIME AUTHORS
Crime writer Geoff Sanders, who secured a two book deal for his novel The Taken Girls after taking our 3-month London-based novel-writing course , shares his best advice for developing and writing a crime series. Read more ››
Stuart Prebble tells us how he created a tense thriller about the hunt for a sadistic serial killer in his crime novel The Bridge. Read more ››
All of our writing courses offer modules in creating characters, writing dialogue and planning your story.Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.