Here are seven excellent tips for writing killer crime stories from Luke Preston.
1. "Don’t be boring"
Like many great writing tips, this is true for any kind of writing. If readers get bored, they'll stop reading. LP's advice:
"... write what excites you. You do that and that excitement will come across on the page and excite the reader."
2. "Grab the reader by the throat on the first page and don’t let go"
LP advises readers to "Start your story off like a shotgun blast in the middle of the night."
I love these kind of openings in both film and literature. Think of the opening to The Matrix. A tiny woman, Trinity, bests several police officers by using very cool, surreal, martial arts moves.
LP breaks this kind of roller coaster opening into five sub-types:
a. The Action Opening
- Hero is being menaced, either physically or emotionally.
b. The Flashback Opening
- Take a moment of drama from later on in the novel and place it at the beginning.
c. The First Day on the Job Opening
- Hero arrives in a new, stressful, setting. New job, new town, etc.
d. The Everyday Hero Opening
- Could be called the Red opening, from the movie of the same name. The hero is going about his routine when something happens to irrevocably change his life ... like groups of assassins trying to kill him.
e. Outside Action
- Something actiony happens that doesn't involve the hero.
3. There must be a crime
Makes sense, right? You're reading a crime novel so there has to be a crime. But don't make it just any crime. And this goes for murder mysteries as well. LP writes:
"Give your criminals unique and conflicting reasons to be criminals. The bad guy in a story never knows he’s the bad guy. In his story, he’s the good guy. Your protagonist is only as strong as the forces of antagonism they are up against. Give them something to go up against."
4. Don't write likeable characters
If you're like me, this point made you go, "Errr ... what?" I've always thought that, while one doesn't have to write a likeable character, it does help readers identify with him (or her).
LP disagrees. He writes:
"Nobody likes likable characters. They may think they do and they may believe they do, but they really don’t. What they like are interesting characters. Characters that make mistakes, characters that think fast and think badly, flawed characters [...] Crime novels are littered with sons of bitches, wild men, dubious women and double crossing bastards. Given the questionable nature of the characters that populate the pages of a crime novel, the question is how do you capture the hearts of the readers and keep them turning the page?"
Good question. LP's answer: Empathy.
Here's LP's advice on how to create empathy in the hearts of your readers:
a. Make the hero funny
b. Make the hero a victim
c. Show the hero in a dilemma
d. Show the hero being highly skilled
e. Show the hero being selfless
Makes sense. Sherlock, from the TV show of the same name, often refers to himself as a high functioning sociopath. Generally speaking, sociopaths aren't likable. Sherlock--and, make no mistake, I love the character; Sherlock is hands down my favorite show right now--is a bit of an ass. But, somehow, the writers have made what is usually an irksome trait a part of his charm.
5. "Endings that slap you in the face"
"Great endings give the reader what they want but not in the way they expect it. [...] Think of the ending as a mini three-act structure with twists and turns, reversals, setbacks and new plans."
Good advice. You know how I know? Jim Butcher has said basically the same thing but in a different way. In writing, if a number of terrific writers agree on a certain point I think they're probably onto something.
LP goes on to say that once your main story arc is closed out, once the hero has killed the villain (or lost to the villain), the story is over. Show how the ending affected the other characters, how it affected the ordinary world of the hero, then end the story.
6. Shake things up
LP advises writers to "hit the street and start a fight." That is--and this is a point I was trying to get across when I wrote about setting--hook your characters, especially the hero, into the world.
Have your characters experience the story world's " disappointments and triumphs, anger and heartbreaks and put it all on the page."
7. What is your story about?
What is your story's theme?
This is something else I've written about lately and I couldn't agree more with what LP says here. Asking what a story's theme is, is equivalent to asking:
"What are you saying about the world with your story?"
What is your story saying about--not the story world--but the real world? What do you want to say?
For example, I think that the main theme of The Mummy was, as Evelyn said, "snivelling little cowards like you [Beni] always get their comeuppance." Or, put another way, cowards and liars always get theirs in the end.
Find something you want your story to say about the world in which you live and then say it--through your story.