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Creating Tension in Crime Fiction: Sam Blake

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Article by Sam Blake ©.
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Good crime is all about pace and tension, about hooking the reader into the story and not letting them go – every writer wants their reader to be so engrossed they read the book in one sitting, and achieving that is paramount.

There’s a constant debate about whether crime fiction is plot driven or character driven, but without great characters you have no plot. Robert McKee in his amazing book STORY talks about plot being generated by the character’s reactions to events. Story is about conflict and about change – if the characters do not change in some way as a result of the story, there is no story. Conflict gives us energy, it gives the characters problems to solve, it hooks us in and is core to any book. And crime readers are an intelligent bunch, they love a challenge, are the type of readers who enjoy cross word puzzles, who can spot a forensic error a mile off – they know their stuff and expect high standards.

And conflict, in my mind, is more than literal, a character’s internal conflict, their personality, their reactions, are key to keeping a reader hooked – it’s vital that as a reader you are interested enough in and fascinated enough to want to read on, and only three dimensional complex characters will achieve that. Everyone has hope and fears and things they’d rather people didn’t know. Fictional characters are just the same.

But how do crime writers create that all important edge of the seat page turning story? Great characters are vital, a great plot too, but that’s not enough, it’s how that story is delivered that holds the reader. Here are some key techniques that crime writers use:

  1. The hook – starting right as the action begins. This is vital to building tension and applies to every chapter as well as that crucial first one. Getting your reader right into the middle of a scene as fast as possible keeps them engrossed. In today’s fast paced environment of internet and TV no-one has the patience to smell the roses and discuss the relative merits of standards over climbers if there’s a body lying in the middle of the rose bed. When I wrote the early drafts of Little Bones the story started in Zoe’s studio in the dead of night – but I realised that was backstory, that the book needed to start when the baby’s bones were found in the hem of the dress, and when I started writing that, Cat Connolly walked right onto the scene.
  2. Foreshadowing is a vital weapon in the crime writer’s arsenal. Dripping detail essential to the plot builds a solid and convincing narrative and when the end comes the reader has an ‘oh yes’ moment when they realise the clues where there all along. Equally the crime fiction reader is sharp and experienced in the genre and has an expectation that the writer will deliver – as playwright and short story writer Checkov said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” For me, not knowing the answer to the key question in Little Bones at the very start meant that I had to trust the characters to guide me, trust that they had left the answers the reader needed woven in to the threads of their appearances, and thankfully they had. When I finally understood how and why the bones were concealed the way they were, I went back and re-read everything, and all the markers were there.
  3. Short, clipped no nonsense sentences move the reader along fast when you need the pace to increase – next time your read Lee Child just look at his sentence structure. Pace and tension are intrinsically linked. When Cathy’s is in the gym and working through a case in her mind, her sentences can be as staccato as her punches.
  4. Short focused chapters do the same thing, creating that sense of forward movement – what does the reader need to know in this chapter that is crucial to moving the plot forward and what is the cleanest way to deliver that? In Little Bones some of the chapters are only 1000 words long providing a window on one of the intertwined subplots without distracting you from the main story. Chapters of differing length speed up and slow down the reader at crucial moments.
  5. Pared back description is vital in crime writing – choosing your words carefully, using the fewest possible to paint a clear picture for the reader moves everything along at a trot. Using character action and dialogue to show your reader the setting means the tension is not lost in description, it ensures you stay with the character all the way through a scene.
  6. Cliff hangers – sounds like a cliché, but these are vital to keep your reader hooked. In Little Bones though, I want to take you right to the edge of the cliff, show you how high the drop is, then show you something in the clouds as you teeter precariously on the edge.
  7. Emotion is crucial to creating tension. If a character’s heart is beating hard, as a reader you feel their fear and the tension leaps off the page – if they are frightened, and they are the ones right there in the scene – as a reader you know you should be frightened too. In the first chapter of LittleBones, despite Cathy’s experience as a detective (and as a kickboxer), her feminine intuition is kicking in and the hairs are standing up on the back of her neck, successfully, I hope building enough tension to keep you reading on…

© Sam Blake

Sam Blake

Little Bones , the No 1 Irish bestseller shortlisted for Irish Crime Novel of the Year, is the first in the Cat Connolly Dublin based detective thriller trilogy. Little Bones is released in the UK – and in paperback in Ireland – this week! Grab your copy now!

For fans of Alex Barclay and Niamh O’Connor, Little Bones introduces Cathy Connolly – cop, kickboxing champion and now a soon-to-be mother…

Detective Garda Cathy Connolly’s life has taken an unexpected turn. Faced with an unplanned pregnancy, Cathy’s trying to decide how she’s going to balance motherhood with the very real dangers of life on the job, especially when her latest case isn’t as straightforward as it first appears.

Called to what seems like a routine break-in, Cathy discovers the bones of a baby concealed in the hem of an old wedding dress. When the dress’s original owner, Lavinia Grant, is found dead in a Dublin suburb, Cathy is drawn deep into a complex web of secrets and lies spun by three generations of women.

Meanwhile, a fugitive killer has already left two dead in execution style killings across the Atlantic – and now he’s in Dublin with old scores to settle. Can the team track him down before he kills again?

Struggling with her own secrets, Cathy doesn’t know how dangerous – and personal – this case is about to become . . .

Pick up a copy of Little Bones in bookshops including WHSmith in UK, and Tescos in Ireland, or order the (natty handbag sized) paperback online here! Join Sam’s mailing list at www.samblakebooks.com for news, event info and lots of giveaways.

Follow Sam Blake on Twitter @samblakebooks

Check out more articles from Sam Blake here:

Creating a Hook: Little Bones by Sam Blake

The Importance of Title: How The Dressmaker Became Little Bones

Creating a Foolproof Plot

In Deep Water by Sam Blake

Finding Your Sound Track: In Deep Water by Sam Blake

Creating Tension in Crime Fiction

Sam Blake’s Top 10 Tips for Editing Your Second Draft

Just Keep Writing: No Turning Back by Sam Blake