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.

Be gritty…

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.

Surprise yourself

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.

3 comments on “Crime Can Be Anything You Want…”

  1. snowy says:

    I think it’s from an article in the Times earlier this year by Jed Mercurio, which was a panel piece of show-runners and scriptwriters. Follow the “Crime is a Trojan Horse” line and it will lead you there, but it is behind a paywall.

  2. John Howard says:

    Not being a writer i don’t really know but I feel that the last point is the most difficult to get satisfactorily right. Watching the TV chaps, Midsomer, Morse, Luther etc we know that the first suspect is never going to be the correct one. John & Arthur’s stories (i.e: Admin’s) seem to have got it right from a readers perspective as “subtle tells” is the watchword.
    I wonder if that difference between TV and the written word is needed to keep a watcher watching.? Do we have a shorter attention span watching “the thing in the corner” that admin has dispensed with, compared with immersing just yourself in the world you are reading about.

  3. Brooke says:

    Many of the TV chaps started their lives in novels, which to my mind are invariably better. In the novels you are inside the lead character’s mind, you are a partner in Morse’s convoluted thinking. In TV, Morse has to think aloud for you to follow and the camera has to show you something obvious for you to catch on–very not subtle, not very interesting.

    Dramatization and writing a novel are very different skill sets, as is blog writing. Rankin did not dramatize Rebus; Beaton did not write the McBeth TV series. Christopher seems to master all three. I am eager to see what he will do with B&M on small screen.

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