Tuesday, July 1

Ed McBain: 7 Ways To Write A Crime Story

Ed McBain: 7 Ways To Write A Crime Story

How many different kinds of crime stories are there? Yesterday I happened across this gem of an article by Ed McBain: She Was Blond. She Was in Trouble. And She Paid 3 Cents a Word, over at nytimes.com.

Ed McBain writes:
"There used to be a time when a person could make a decent living writing crime stories. Back then, a hard-working individual could earn 2 cents a word for a short story. Three cents, if he was exceptionally good. It beat polishing spittoons. Besides, it was fun.

"Back then, starting a crime story was like reaching into a box of chocolates and being surprised by either the soft center or the carmel or the nuts. There were plenty of nuts in crime fiction, but you never knew what kind of story would come out of the machine until it started taking shape on the page. Like a jazz piano player, a good writer of short crime fiction didn't think he knew his job unless he could improvise in all 12 keys. Ringing variations on the theme was what made it such fun. Getting paid 2 or 3 cents a word was also fun."
Ed McBain hints that there are 12 templates for crime stories ("in all 12 keys") but doesn't list them all. Though I'm addicted to murder mystery stories, I haven't read widely in crime. If you can guess what the remaining categories are, please let me know!

7 Basic Crime Stories


1. Private Eye Stories


Ed McBain writes:

"For me, Private Eye stories were the easiest of the lot. All you had to do was talk out of the side of your mouth and get in trouble with the cops. In the P.I. stories back then, the cops were always heavies. If it weren't for the cops, the P.I. could solve a murder -- any murder -- in 10 seconds flat. The cops were always dragging the P.I. into the cop shop to accuse him of having murdered somebody just because he happened to be at the scene of the crime before anybody else got there, sheesh!

"I always started a P.I. story with a blonde wearing a tight shiny dress. When she crossed her legs, you saw rib-topped silk stockings and garters taut against milky white flesh, boy. Usually, she wanted to find her missing husband or somebody. Usually, the P.I. fell in love with her by the end of the story, but he had to be careful because you couldn't trust girls who crossed their legs to show their garters. A Private Eye was Superman wearing a fedora."

I love that line, "A Private Eye was Superman wearing a fedora." 

2. The Amateur Detective


Ed McBain writes:

"The Amateur Detective was a private eye without a license. The people who came to the Am Eye were usually friends or relatives who never dreamed of going to the police with a criminal problem but who couldn't afford to pay a private detective for professional help. So, naturally, they went to an amateur. They called upon a rabbi or a priest or the lady who was president of the garden club, or somebody who owned cats, or a guy who drove a locomotive on the Delaware Lackawanna, and they explained that somebody was missing, or dead, and could these busy amateurs please lend a helping hand?"

3. Innocent Bystander


Ed McBain writes:

"Even more fun was writing an Innocent Bystander story. You didn't have to know anything at all to write one of those. An Innocent Bystander story could be about anyone who witnessed a crime he or she should not have witnessed. Usually, this was a murder, but it could also be a kidnapping or an armed robbery or even spitting on the sidewalk, which is not a high crime, but which is probably a misdemeanor, go look it up. When you were writing an Innocent Bystander story, you didn't have to go look anything up. You witnessed a crime and went from there."

4. The Biter Bit


Ed McBain writes:

"The hardest story to write was what was called Biter Bit. As the name suggests, this is a story in which the perpetrator unwittingly becomes the victim. For example, I make an elaborate plan to shoot you, but when I open the door to your bedroom, you're standing there with a pistol in your hand, and you shoot me. Biter Bit."

McBain also talks about:

- Man on the Run/Woman in Jeopardy
- The Cop Story

I encourage you to read McBain's article,  She Was Blond. She Was in Trouble. And She Paid 3 Cents a Word. It's a funny and irreverent summary of the kinds of crime fiction McBain was so good at. 

Dig in and get it done, by Ed McBain


Before I close, I want to mention an article by Evan Hunter/Ed McBain in which he discusses his views on writing: Dig in and get it done. This article first appeared in The Writer in April 1978. 

McBain's article is unformatted and looks like a straight text dump of an archived file. Still, I share it here because it seems to have been posted with the permission of the rights holder. Also, this seems to be the only place the essay still exists. It's an interesting read.

Photo credit: Untitled by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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