Crime Can Be Anything You Want…
Here are some jottings I found on writing crime fiction. I have a sneaking feeling some of these points came from a US TV writer, but I can’t for the life of me remember who – if it was you and I’ve not namechecked you, I’m sorry, tell me and I’ll correct it.
Crime is a Trojan horse
It can be a vehicle for zeitgeist stories and iconic characters. The genre is a gateway to pretty much any kind of dramatic story. Crime provides stories about secrets, lies and betrayal, of extreme emotion and acts committed under stress, of passion, death and survival.
Never dwell on the crime
Always concentrate on human behaviour. A powerful theme,a strong characterisation for your hero and logical behaviour. If you’re writing about Charles Manson, it’s wise to keep in mind that he doesn’t wake up each morning thinking he’s crazy. He wakes up each morning thinking you’re crazy. No-one starts the day saying to themselves, ‘I’m really going to be really disgusting to people today.’ Everyone starts off the day feeling righteous. So when someone commits a crime, it’s never their fault. It’s the victim’s fault. Or society’s fault. If we follow the logic of behaviour the story will always dictate to us how it tells itself, not the other way around.
Murder is best
All other crimes pale into insignificance. Ideally, there’s also the threat of death for the killer. There are so many different ways of telling a detective story. From the killer’s point of view to locked-room mysteries, the only thing that never really satisfies is if it turns out to be an anticlimactic accident or, in the case of one Dorothy L Sayers story, a suicide that looks like murder that’s actually a suicide. You can’t help but feel let down a bit.
Before the crime comes the person
The genre won’t work without recognisable characters and careful step-by-step plotting. The best dramas develop their characters through the story. They are interdependent. Normally the detective’s role is to shine a light on the crime, but crimes can exist to throw a spotlight on the hero.
Don’t get joyless
Humour and optimism are fundamental as counterpoints and intensifiers for dark themes. Too much crime insists on stylised bleakness over humour and humanity. I love Mo Hayder’s writing but her work is so very dark it’s often hard to find any light. Humans aren’t built like that.
For every crime, there’s a criminal
There are countless examples of the calculating psychopath in crime fiction, but many recent British offerings have a criminal who commits a human error. Try writing about ‘there but for the grace of God’ characters. People like us who have made mistakes, sometimes terrible mistakes, but who are not inherently ‘other’. Add borderline moral judgment calls. These propel them into an unplanned spiral of criminality.
Detectives needs ‘a thing’
Sherlock Holmes has his deductive powers, Poirot his ‘little grey cells’. To be distinctive, you want a detective who does things their way. Ideally the solution is revealed through the prism of their personality. Holmes casts an immense shadow but there are other heroes with stranger traits, just as there are people.
Many contemporary British crime dramas occupy a supposedly realistic sub-genre, reflecting the societal causes of crime and its effects on people. Bad things test people, and that’s what drama is; it brings out character, and that’s when heroes are created. A heroine is someone you like, and then you pile as much pain on her as you can think of. We enjoy the vicarious thrill/catharsis of playing out things that we wouldn’t want to go through; the thrill of relating to an admirable person whose experience we wouldn’t want to have to go through.
. . . or escapist
You can disregard the restrictions of contemporary reality. Many plots rely on coincidences or accidents, but if you go along with the spirit of the puzzle you’re properly playing the game.
Even a country house mystery can be subversive: lies, deceit, broken skulls, corpses piling up in the very seat of what it means to be English. A world is thrown into chaos until the detective turns up to unravel plot and apportion guilt in a grandstanding final act.
If you write your back stories well enough and create believable motives for enough suspects, you can sometimes change who is guilty at quite a late stage. And then all the subtle ‘tells’ you subconsciously attach to the original guilty character, at a stroke, become interesting misdirection.