By Jayne Barnard
What do fish-gutting, trap-lines, and cross-country skiing have to do with crime-writing?
They’re all ways to think structurally when creating good stories.
A good crime story is, first and foremost, a good story. One of the above is specific to crime writing. During The Crime Writer’s Toolkit workshop on October 3, we’ll talk about all of them, and how they interact for the best possible story dynamics.
Consider how many stories you read that are driven by the pursuit of something—an answer, an object, a person—pulling you through with the gradual revelation of long-kept secrets, or luring you into expecting one ending and then switching it up in the final paragraph. Would you keep reading if there was nothing you wanted to find out? Those are all standard tropes of crime writing, even in the hands of authors who aren’t writing what you might think of as a typical crime novel.
First, for those whose exposure to crime writing begins and ends with Poirot on Netflix, some background on what crime fiction is:
Crime fiction embraces a wide field. It encompasses mystery, suspense, and thriller sub-genres, each with their own sub-genres such as cosy, hard-boiled, political, police-procedural, or slasher/serial killer. Each sub-genre (except the last) might be written for any age group. There might be paranormal elements or a science-fiction setting. It’s a big tent, even without considering another very popular arena of crime writing: true crime, which may be biographical or auto-biographical, strictly factual or verging into creative non-fiction. My quarter-century of published crime writing—and all my awards—are for crime fiction; I’ll be leaving discussions of crime non-fiction to those more skilled in that sub-genre.
Like any other genre, crime fiction has its conventions, the concepts that devoted readers expect to find and will feel cheated if those aren’t presented, or are presented poorly. These conventions include clear victims, villains, and sleuths, the Hook, clues and red herrings, turning points, black moments, and more. Fair Play is the Prime Directive: the reader should be able to arrive at the answer to the central story question through a close reading of the text, and if they are surprised by the solution, they should be able to spot all the well-buried clues on a re-read.
Romantic suspense might fall under crime writing or under romance, depending on which tropes carry more of the story. Romance readers will overlook a lot of improbable crime solving if the journey toward true love is holding their interest, while readers of crime fiction will throw a book across the room if the police detective prematurely reveals the progress of an investigation to the adorable love interest. Crime readers may lose patience with the ‘kissing bits’ and want to get on with the mystery. The romantics may baulk at a convoluted plot that makes the crime reader’s heart sing. Getting the balance right is very much a matter of becoming familiar with the conventions of both genres and then choosing which of those to include, ignore, or turn on their heads.
Unlike in pure romance and much of romantic suspense where the central story question is always the same (How will the two protagonists end up together?), the story questions in crime fiction vary by their sub-genre and spread across the full spectrum from frivolous to deadly. Mystery questions might be anything from “Where’s the missing pet?’ through “Who stole the queen’s jewels?” to “Who killed Mr. (or Ms.) Boddy and why?” In a suspense novel, the question is often “Who is behind this peril to me and those I hold dear?” In a thriller we often know who the villain is and the question has become “Can our protagonist evade this clear danger and outwit the villain?” Elements of all three might be combined in a single piece of crime writing.
The elements of mystery are everywhere, almost invisibly underpinning fiction and non-fiction alike. Learning what they are and how to use them effectively allows you to not only write crime fiction, but to shape any piece of writing for maximum reader engagement.
In the October 3rd workshop we’ll develop the main components of a joint crime plot, using easy-to-recall diagrams to shape our story like we’d prepare a fresh-caught fish for the pan, stringing out our clues and red herrings like traps on a line to ensure Fair Play, and pacing the reader’s journey through our story as if they were on a cross-country ski over the knolls and gullies around Thunder Bay.
Join Jayne Barnard on October 3rd, 7–9:00p.m. at the Mary J.L. Black Library in Thunder Bay for The Crime Writer’s Toolkit, a free NOWW workshop.
JE Barnard is a Calgary-based crime writer with 25 years of award-winning short fiction and children’s literature behind her. Author of the popular Maddie Hatter Adventures, she has won the Dundurn Unhanged Arthur, the Bony Pete, and the SWG Award for Children’s Literature. Her works have been shortlisted for the Prix Aurora, the Debut Dagger, the Book Publishing in Alberta Award, and three Great Canadian Story prizes.
Jayne attended high school first on a NATO base in Germany and then in Kapuskasing, Ontario, where her Air Force father was posted next. Her childhood of camping, boating and fishing fostered a love for the wilderness and a passionate respect for the environment. When the Flood Falls, the novel that won the Unhanged in 2016, will be released by Dundurn Press on July 14, 2018. Two more titles in The Falls Mysteries are scheduled for the following years, each rooted in the society, politics, and geography of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes. Jayne is a past VP of Crime Writers of Canada, a founder of Calgary Crime Writers, and a member of Sisters In Crime. She is represented by Olga Filina of The Rights Agency.