How to Write Crime Fiction - Part Eight: A Crime Fiction Writing Checklist
by Kelvin Jones
Now that we've gone through the essential elements that make a successful crime novel, here is a checklist to keep you on the path to success:
- Analyse novels you've enjoyed to try to see why you did.
- Pay particular attention to the first three pages, but don't do less than your best for the rest.
- Give your book a ‘plus’ factor (something to make it stand out from the rest of the `slush' pile).
- Make sure it has that page-turning quality by increasing the tension and creating suspense at every opportunity.
- Give it immediacy so the reader has the feeling he is actually there.
- Ensure you have created sympathetic, and unsympathetic believable characters.
- Write the sort of book you, yourself, like to read. - Disraeli said: “Whenever I want to read a book, I write one.”
- Give your book an ending that will leave the reader feeling satisfied — and making a mental note to look out for your next.
Writing the Scenes
A novel is a sequence of scenes. Before writing each, certain points have to be considered:
- The point of view from which the scene is written. This arises only where multiple viewpoints are used. Try to keep to one only in each scene. Some writers regard this as a hard and fast rule. In my view, there can be exceptions, but it is better to stick to the rule as far as possible. If a change in viewpoint is necessary, keep the character for the remainder of the scene.
- Keeping to the viewpoint of only one character or no more than two means that the thoughts of other characters will be expressed in concrete form of actions and speech. This may not apply to classic 19th Century style novels.
- Beware of a pitfall: once embarked on revealing the private thoughts of characters, the device may be overused, disclosing material that could be brought out in speech or action — a much livelier way of doing it.
Writing in the Characters
In the synopsis, the order of introduction of the characters has been worked out to avoid, as far as possible, bunching. With the appearance of each character, the aim is not to give a potted biography, but a first impression, exactly as if one were meeting a stranger. The description needs to be short and vivid. It will describe only the physical appearance, and the aura of cheerfulness, pleasantness, gloom or acidity which strikes those who meet this character. For the first impression, there is no room to go into many details of past history or to delve into personality. Those aspects must be added, gradually, as the reader becomes more familiar with the character.
What is needed is a swift, illuminating phrase.
Consider: “She was small and exquisite, with an expression of perpetual disdain on her porcelain-pale face.” This image is chilling: She could be imagined putting a lethal dose into a bedtime mug of hot milk. The reader will fasten on to her, because the introduction is angled unsympathetically.
Don’t Reveal your Villain too Soon
Readers go villain-spotting very early on. It's a cliché that the least likely character is the one who is ‘It’, and aware of this, crime writers have to be subtle in their introductions of their criminals. A useful device is to have another character — unpleasant, crotchety, tyrannical or vicious — upon whom the reader may latch as the villain.
Where red herrings are being used to cloak the identity of the murderer, it is recommended, when introducing them, to show only face value, and not investigate their personalities until suspicion begins to turn towards them.
How to Make your Characters Real
The characters need to be fleshed out, given speech and actions which suit the type of persons you intend them to be. In the preparatory notes, you have given them a biography, an appearance and a temperament. You know their faults, as well as their virtues. Each of them has a specific part to play in the plot, and the writer has designed them for this.
It is possible to make mistakes, especially in early attempts at crime writing. These are nothing to worry about — the learning process is one of trial and error - but they are disconcerting, and are rooted in faulty planning.
Generally, the characters concerned are the vital ones of hero or villain. From the first, their roles are so sharply defined in the writer's mind that it is possible to neglect exploring them as people. It is only when one is halfway through the book — and developing these characters along logical lines — that it becomes clear that X is genuinely benevolent, and would never stick a knife into anyone, no matter what the provocation; or that Y is an utter swine underneath his/her delightful exterior. At the planning stage, characters are no more than outlines. It is only in the actual writing that the author gets to know the characters, to like or dislike them, and to find out if they are truly fitted to their roles.
Choosing the Right Book Title
The right title for the book may come to mind in the early stages of planning, or it may not come at all, and the book has to be given a temporary “working title”, with the final title decided later between author, publisher's editor and agent.
Finding the right title can be difficult. It needs to convey something essential about the book; to be eye-catching; and to alert the prospective reader to the type of book it is. And above all, try make it short, e.g. Headbanger, Stone Dead, Witch Jar are some of my own.
For a crime book, the prime need is for the title to suggest murder, mayhem, suspense etc. What it must not do, is allow the book be confused with, say, an historical novel.
It is almost impossible to find a title which has not been used before. Accept this as a fact of literary life. All that concerns the writer is that there should not be another book currently in print with that title. If there is, another title will have to be found.
Do not be discouraged; the chances are that the new title will be better than the first. Check the titles on Amazon!
See the rest of Kelvin’s Blog post on how to write crime fiction here.
Kelvin I. Jones has been a prolific UK crime and supernatural fantasy writer for over a quarter of a century. Born in Kent in 1948, he is equally at home writing poetry, plays and novels. He has published six books about Sherlock Holmes and the only definitive study of Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism, as well as numerous articles about the Victorian detective (see R De Waal's Universal Sherlock Holmes, online edition, 2000). Ed Hoch, the renowned American crime writer, has said of his Sherlockian work: “Kelvin I Jones reveals a sensibility and knowledge of 19th Century literature that extends far beyond the world of Sherlock Holmes.' He is the author of the Stone Dead series, featuring the intrepid Cornish detective, John Bottrell, and the Inspector Ketch stories, which are set in Norfolk.
Recent publications: Sherlock Holmes: The Plagues of London, Sherlock Holmes: The Baskerville Papers, A Dogged Detective (DCI Ketch), A Grave For The Goddess (John Bottrell).
Kelvin Jones has a new book coming out called Headbanger, an Inspector Ketch Murder Mystery
A controversial, graphic and often disturbing account of how Sherlock Holmes, the archetypal detective, discovered the identity of Jack The Ripper, the killer who stalked Whitechapel in 1888. Based on newly discovered journals of his intimate friend, Doctor Watson, confidential Scotland Yard files, plus the intimate and revealing diaries of Dr Watson's second wife, the novel shows a view of Victorian London which peels away the layers of respectability and reveals society just as violent, exploitative and prurient as our own.