Tips for Crafting Crime Fiction by Henry Sutton

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Henry Sutton

Henry Sutton

In this short extract from Crafting Crime Fiction, Henry Sutton, Professor of Creative Writing and Crime Fiction at the University of East Anglia, passes on key ‘craft tips’ he has shared with students of crime fiction over the years.

Over the years, I’ve tried to define and revise my approach and advice on writing crime fiction. I’ve compiled various lists of ‘crime writing tips’ to hand out in workshops and classes, both institutional and non-academic. My most comprehensive runs to 25 brief ‘tips’. Looking at that list now – it’s already a few years old – I stand by many of them, feeling they still represent my aims, my approaches, my understanding of the sort of crime fiction I like to read and try to write. Here they are (many borrowed and tweaked, as is the way with such writing advice, from others; predominantly those quoted and referenced in this work):

  1. Let the writing dictate, not the action.
  2. Think of the scene and the then the plot.
  3. Suspense, as opposed to narrative drive, needs to control the pace.
  4. Use violence sparingly and never gratuitously.
  5. While a sense of place can be important, rounded characterisation is essential.
  6. What people say says more about them than what they wear.
  7. Interiority slackens momentum.
  8. Literary depth comes from acute observation and emotional and intellectual insight, not just prose style or fancy research.
  9. Authenticity (if something feels right) is more important than accuracy something being factually correct) in relation to procedure.
  10. Crime fiction should entertain before it informs.
  11. Forget about polemics, but don’t forget that what you write matters.
  12. Everything you do write should be written with a sense of urgency and necessity, and pass the ‘so what?’ test.
  13. A burning desire for justice, or revenge, can only harm the balance of a piece of fiction. Be inspired, but don’t lose perspective.
  14. Avoid occupying too many characters’ perspectives. Intimacy comes from familiarity.
  15. Don’t avoid uncomfortable or awkward or distressing situations. The hardest thing to write about will very often be the most powerful.
  16. Plan the structure of your work, but not to a hundred per cent. Have a good idea of the beginning, middle and end, but allow for deviation and surprise.
  17. Constructing a piece of fiction chronologically will aid the narrative pull. Think of every sentence, every paragraph, scene and chapter leading to the next.
  18. People like to laugh, but not all the time.
  19. Death is a serious business. People get hurt, but not usually by serial killers.
  20. Clichés are clichés for a reason – there’s something true about them.
  21. Not all detectives like beer or jazz.
  22. Some of the best crime fiction doesn’t involve detectives at all.
  23. Decide whether you are more interested in solving a crime (as in classic detective fiction), or letting a crime(s) unfold (as in classic thriller fiction). Keep your intention clear.
  24. Genres are forever dynamic.
  25. Readers, not critics, are your most valuable source of criticism.

Crafting Crime FictionThese lists, like Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, should always be taken lightly (which is why I’ve tried to avoid them in this book until now). Such lists and rules have also always been strongly associated with crime fiction (detective fiction especially), notably from Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction, to S. S. Van Dine’s Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories. I believe that writers properly invested in the genre have spent the last century trying to disassociate themselves from those rules, and possibly rules altogether. However, the genre is a form in itself, and we necessarily continue to identify commonalities, as much as we try to deconstruct and then reconstruct our own versions of the form. We might even find ourselves fine-tuning our own ‘rules’ and tips. Again, in part this might have something to do with the comfort of repetition, parameters, boundaries, to a certain sort of form – both as readers, and as writers.

  1. Plot: begins and ends with character.
  2. Character: defined by point of view and desire.
  3. Events: get in the way.
  4. Setting: a character too.
  5. Structure: develops around a timeline.
  6. Pace: where motivation meets descriptive economy.
  7. Suspense: comes from questions, not answers.
  8. Mystery: works better if the surprise has menace.
  9. Entertainment: hangs on engagement.
  10. Craft: pulls it all together.

So here we are then, having contemplated aspects of all of the above, trying to pull it together. While this book is an in-depth look at most of those 25 and then 10 points, it’s also a fine-tune. We have nine topics or chapters, not ten. ‘Events’ has been replaced by ‘Imitation and limitation’, mainly because events, story points and developments should be covered elsewhere; primarily within plot, character, structure, suspense, even setting. Suspense and mystery have been joined in the same chapter because technically and theoretically they are so intrinsically linked. ‘Editing’ has been added to craft, because it’s both a craft, and also it’s what happens after all the various craft elements have been put to work, and the story has been ‘pulled’ together. I also like the number nine. As basic as it might be, I like all aspects of plot and structure to be divisible by three. Beginning, middle and end, the three-act structure.

I am also not averse to bookending a novel with a prologue and/or an epilogue – as long as these elements are properly considered and invariably created after the main narrative has been written, and only then if they are enlightening and engaging, and add to the experience. That’s why this work has a short introduction (rather obviously titled ‘Beginnings’) and conclusion (‘Endings’). To me, symmetry and balance are as important as consistency and coherence. They are also incredibly useful in the construction and completion of a crime novel. Or perhaps that should be the sort of crime novel I aim to write, and enjoy reading: novels that display that great pulling together, that alchemy.

Lists and rules by their nature are there to be discounted, disrespected and variously ignored. That is, if some form of ‘literary’ freedom and ‘originality’ is being strived for. Lists also age. However, they can be useful, and especially in relation to form and genre: where to go, and where not to go. There are always fundamentals to consider and employ: ways of seeing and doing things that make the journey more fruitful, more enjoyable, more possible. Besides, without a solid grounding in key aspects of writing (the sort of writing that truly engages you), how can you begin to move forward, to do things differently? This pulling together, and all such craft considerations amount to authorial control, and eventually, knowing when something works and doesn’t work: when to cut, when to rewrite, when to add, when to take away and when to leave alone.

(c) Henry Sutton

About Crafting Crime Fiction:

Crafting Crime FictionJohn le Carré said the best place to start a crime novel is as near to the end of the story as possible. But how do you know what the story is?

As writers, we all have different experiences and skills to draw upon, and this book will help you identify the right beginning, middle and end for your own crime novel.

Whether you are writing a police procedural or a psychological thriller, you will need to consider the basic elements of a gripping narrative. Within these pages, you’ll learn to master the art of storytelling, from creating a compelling plot that keeps readers on the edge of their seats to choosing the perfect point of view to bring your characters to life. Dive into the depths of suspense, mystery, and surprise, as you unravel the intricacies of crafting a crime novel that captivates and entertains.

This guide will help any new or experienced writer to navigate the writing journey, uncovering the core principles that will make your crime fiction truly exceptional.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Henry Sutton is Professor of Creative Writing and Crime Fiction at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of fifteen novels and a collection of short stories. A literary critic for many years, he has judged numerous awards, including the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. He is the director of the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival.

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