WRITING HINTS & TIPS FOR YOU BY VANESSA FOX O’LOUGHLIN
Good crime is all about pace and tension, about hooking the reader into the story and not letting them go – every writer wants their reader to be so engrossed they read the book in one sitting, and acieving that is paramount.
There’s a constant debate about whether crime fiction is plot driven or character driven, but without great characters you have no plot. Robert McKee in his amazing book STORY talks about the plot being generated by the character’s reactions to events. Story is about conflict and about change – if the characters do not change in some way as a result of the story, there is no story. Conflict gives us energy, it gives the characters problems to solve, it hooks us in and is core to any book. And crime readers are an intelligent bunch, they love a challenge, are the type of readers who enjoy cross word puzzles, who can spot a forensic error a mile off – they know their stuff and expect high standards.
And, conflict in my mind, is more than literal, a character’s internal conflict, their personality, their reactions, are key to keeping a reader hooked – it’s vital that as a reader you are interested enough in and fascinated enough to want to read on, and only three dimensional complex characters will achieve that. Everyone has hope and fears and things they’d rather people didn’t know. Fictional characters are just the same.
But how do crime writers create that all important edge of the seat page turning story?
Great characters are vital, a great plot too, but that’s not enough, it’s how that story is delivered that holds the reader. Here are some key techniques – next time you read a crime novel look out for them;
Starting right as the action begins. This is vital to building tension and applies to every chapter as well as that crucial first one. Getting your reader right into the middle of a scene as fast as possible keeps them engrossed. In today’s fast paced environment of internet and TV no-one has the patience to smell the roses and discuss the relative merits of tea roses over climbers if there’s a body lying in the middle of the rose bed.
A vital weapon in the crime writer’s arsenal. Dripping detail essential to the plot builds a solid and convincing narrative and when the end comes the reader has an ‘oh yes’ moment when they realise the clues where there all along. Equally the crime fiction reader is sharp and experienced in the genre and has an expectation that the writer will deliver – as playwright and short story writer Checkov said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” For me, not knowing the answer to the key question in Little Bones meant that I had to trust the characters to guide me, trust that they had left the answers woven in to the threads of their appearances, and thankfully they had. When I went back and re-read it, I could see the markers.
SHORT, CLIPPED, NO NONSENSE SENTENCES
Moves the reader along fast when you need the pace to increase – next time your read Lee Child just look at his sentence structure. Pace and tension of intrinsically linked. When Cathy’s is in the gym and working through a case in her mind, her sentences can be as staccato as her punches.
SHORT FOCUSED CHAPTERS
These do the same thing, creating that sense of forward movement – what does the reader need to know in this chapter that is crucial to moving the plot forward and what is the cleanest way to deliver that? In Little Bones some of the chapters are only 1000 words long providing a window on one of the intertwined subplots without distracting you from the main story. Chapters of differing length speed up and slow down the reader at crucial moments.
pARED BACK DESCRIPTION
This is vital in crime writing (we’re back to the roses) – choosing your words carefully, using the fewest possible to paint a clear picture for the reader moves everything along at a trot. Using character action and dialogue to show your reader the setting means the tension is not lost through in description, it ensures you stay with the character all the way through the scene.
Sounds like a cliché, but these are vital to keep your reader hooked. In Little Bones though, I want to take you right to the edge of the cliff, show you how high the drop is, then show you something in the clouds as you teeter precariously on the edge.
This is crucial to creating tension. If a character’s heart is beating hard, as a reader you feel their fear and the tension leaps off the page – if they are frightened, and they are the ones right there in the scene – as a reader you know you should be frightened too. In the first chapter of Little Bones, despite Cathy’s experience as a detective (and as a kickboxer), her feminine intuition is kicking in and the hairs are standing up on the back of her neck, successfully, I hope building enough tension to keep you reading on…