19 November 2012

How to write a crime novel – part 1

Curtis Brown Creative Crime Writing Weekend
by Rufus Purdy From Our Students, Our Courses, Writing Tips

The inaugural CBC crime-writing course took place the weekend before last, and a bunch of eager students came into Curtis Brown’s central London offices for intensive sessions with Orion publishing director Bill Massey, agent Gordon Wise, and authors Meg Gardiner and Steve Mosby (pictured). Tips and techniques were thrown around the room like blood at a murder scene, and the next generation of crime novelists returned to their laptops with a set of guidelines to help them create a gripping masterpiece. Barney Thompson, an alumnus of CBC’s novel-writing course as well as the crime-writing weekend, shares his notes with us here:



(1) Create sympathetic characters and put them in danger.
(2) Make the tests facing your hero greater and greater until there is no going back.
(3) Crime fiction is about justice and the restoration of justice.
(4) Know what the chase is and cut to it. Begin in the middle – pick a pivotal scene and start there.
(5) Ask a question the readers will want to know the answer to. This could be someone running away – why? Or someone saying ‘Bless me, father, for I have sinned’ – how?
(6) Alternatively, begin with action, then explain how we got there (a technique that Jake Arnott uses to great effect in The Long Firm).



(1) What throws the hero and the villain together? What keeps them together? Why do they keep going and why are they unable to quit?
(2) Create a crucible the protagonist can’t get out of or provide reasons they have to keep going. This could be because the pursuit of the criminal is their job (detective, PI, etc). It could be to do with their family, or that they’re in prison (or somewhere they can’t walk away from danger). They might be in the wilderness (there’s no escape from danger or danger is always one step behind).



(1) Keep building the tension and excise all the flab.
(2) Never get a hero out of trouble without putting him into even bigger trouble.
(3) There are several classic tricks a writer can use to build tension. These include time pressure (a ticking bomb, deadline before execution/end of world, etc) or setbacks such as evidence disappearing, witnesses dying or pitfalls emerging. The writer can also increase the threat – either physical or reputational.
(4) Make the plan go wrong.
(5) Don’t end chapters with people going to bed or falling asleep – don’t tie scenes up with a nice little bow. Keep posing questions.
(6) Tighten the connections between characters – family members, rivalries, dependence, betrayal, shared motivations.
(7) Use a surprise when a scene is already tense, not as a way of rescuing a dull scene.



(1) The ending of a crime novel should be surprising yet inevitable – a classic example of this is the ‘No, Luke, I am your father’ scene at the end of the Star Wars trilogy.
(2) The question that has been hanging in the air should be answered.
(3) Don’t have the antagonist just give up.
(4) Avoid incredulous coincidences that will make the reader groan.
(5) Employ the crunch dilemma: force the hero to choose the lesser of two evils or decide between irreconcilable ‘goods’.


In our next post, Barney Thompson shares his notes on how to create great villains, convincing yet taut dialogue, and provides tips on building tension.

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