Susie Steiner: General Rules for Writing Great Detective Fiction

Susie Steiner: General Rules for Writing Great Detective Fiction

1. Write what you know

What? You’re not a detective, you say? You’ve never investigated a murder? And you’ve never been a victim of violent crime, ingeniously covered up by a mastermind villain? What are you doing in this genre?

I’ve never held with the write what you know thing because I think writing is all about curiosity and imaginative empathy.

The research is the fun part: the lives of cops are fascinating. Contact real cops, then make friends with them. I’m not even kidding. I could not write my novels without the detectives who advise me.

Newspaper clippings are your friend, as are true crime documentaries (shh, go away, I’m working on my novel while watching tv). Go where your nose takes you. Real cases, adapted into fiction and adjusted to fit your character’s life situation, are the perfect basis for crime novels.

2. Cut to the chase

All novels thrive on incident but detective novels rely on a constant stream of incident to make them gripping. Don’t go describing the rain for pages on end. Have someone walk into the room with a gun instead. If you’re lacking pace, try entering your scene three paragraphs in. You’ll often find there is preamble to the action that you simply don’t need. No one cares what colour the chair in the corner is; they want to hear the couple arguing about their sex life.

3. Juicy gossip

When I’m trying to think up plot (and I genuinely find it hard), I make an effort to hone in on the things I find most juicy in life – either to hear about in gossip or to read about in books and newspapers. Which story last made you absolutely fizz with curiosity? Did it involve sex? Infidelity? Rotten childhoods? A grisley end? Marriages are always riveting. Go to the marrow of what interests you, and don’t take your time getting there. See above about entering the scene mid-action.

4. Twist schmist

There’s a lot of pressure on writers of psychological thrillers to come up with some killer twist or high concept. Worrying about this can tie you in knots and paralyse your creativity. Forgedaboudit. Suspense can come from knowing the ‘who’ but not the ‘why’. It can come from the gradual release of clues which urge the reader to play detective. And it can come from your reader being ahead of your cop, realising a danger or threat before he or she does. So like I say, twist schmist.

Try reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne to see how he creates suspense. He recruits the reader’s desire for the main character, Cyril Avery, to find his birth mother. And he does this by letting the reader know what the main character does not know – who his birth mother is. Often they are in a room together, poor Cyril none the wiser. It leaves you, the reader, inwardly writhing and on red alert – in a good way.

5. Structure is everything

I truly believe novels succeed of fail because of their structure. Not caring about structure is like saying your body would be fine without your skeleton. It wouldn’t. You’d be a puddle.

I recommend Carolyn Wheat’s book How to Write Killer Fiction for advice on structure.

For masterclasses in classic, classy structure, try Jane Harper’s thrillers, The Dry, and Force of Nature. She employs very calm, thought-through structures in both novels. No trickery, no silly twists coming out of nowhere. Just good, old-fashioned plotting.

6. Did I mention that structure is everything?

These days, I’m fairly instinctive about it. I’m aware that the opening three pages have to be the very best writing that you are capable of. My revisions will go over those first pages ad nauseam, often only settling on them at the very end. How can you know the beginning if you don’t know the end?

I know that by a third of the way through, I instinctively want a secondary plotline to crash up against the first plotline, sending waves across it and confusing just about everyone in the novel. The plot literally thickens at this point.

I’ve suffered from mushy middle in the past and am very anxious about it these days. Try to avoid this with lots of developments in the police investigation and avoid flashbacks at all costs (flashbacks are a recipe for mushy middle. When I read them, I feel like I can hear the author humming, ‘Dum de dum de dum, is my word count up yet?’).

7. Oh my God the ending.

Then the ending: crikey, how hard is the ending? It has to be satisfying, somewhat unexpected, yet foreshadowed sufficiently to not be out of the blue, not to mention psychologically astute. Your resolution needs to give the reader that, ‘Ahhhhhh, of course! If only I’d seen it earlier!’ moment. I try to work out the ending at the beginning of plotting, though I’m rarely successful in this. Some rules for what you can’t do with the resolution/ending: have some minor player pop out of the woodwork and have dunnit, without foreshadowing, motive, or role throughout the novel. Similarly, don’t bring in some random outlandish twist because you’re desperate to inject excitement. Remember, a lot of the pleasure in resolution is in the ‘why’ not just the ‘who’ and the ‘how’. Don’t leave things hanging – it might seem avant garde. In fact, it’s just annoying. Who likes a puzzle that isn’t solved?

For incredible resolutions, read Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution and Susan Hill’s first Simon Serrailler novel, The Various Haunts of Men – which has a mind blowing ending that truly unseats the reader.

8. Novels aren’t written, they’re re-written

…as Michael Crichton once said.

I revise each manuscript upwards of ten times, allowing each draft to go cold before re-reading and taking apart like a cack-handed neurosurgeon.

It’s okay for your first draft to be an unbridled mess. It’s okay for the plot to have more holes than a Swiss cheese. Your first draft is only your undercoat. Slap it up onto the wall and move onto the next phase. Because revising is where the funs stuff happens.

9. Layer it in, baby

What I find happens during revision, is that everything can deepen. Characters can be further fleshed out, motives can be drawn out, extra conflicts back-laid. It’s a bit like being a sculptor and chiselling, turning the piece, chiselling a bit more, so that different elements are brought into sharper relief. I don’t know of a way to do this ‘all in one go’ in a first draft. In part, this is because I’m finding out about the novel as I write it. For me, it’s a slow process over time, which comes out of re-reading and feeling where the gaps are. I love this work the most of all of it.