5 Killer Tips For Writing Deadly Crime Fiction

This article originally appeared on Author Garry Rodger’s website, dyingwords.net. I asked permission to share it with you. Enjoy!

DoNotCross_OpAre you overwhelmed with writing advice? Frustrated by ‘expert’ penmonkeys that don’t know squat about crime-writing? Sick of literary snitches that sell you false clues? Stuck for real leads on what makes for good blood & guts scoops?

Well, it’s up to you to solve your style, but I’ve got some solid evidence on what makes or breaks a crime-fiction story.

1. Understand what story is.

Stories are about something that happens. Pure & simple. Oh, there’s all kinds of BS out there about character-driven or plot-driven, literary or commercial, and first person vs. omniscient crap. That’s good fodder for writing seminars, but for the reader… it’s all about what’s happening. It’s not show vs. tell. Readers don’t care about that and they don’t recognize a good alliteration from a bad head-hop.

They care about what happens next. It’s not perfect prose they’re looking for. It’s the overall story question – What’s going to happen?

Keep your reader questioning and you’ll keep them reading to the end. And it’ll make them buy your next book. And the one after that.

So forget most of the ‘expert’ garbage and, like Stephen King says, just tell the goddam story. And if you really want to learn something, go read Lisa Cron’s book Wired For Story. You’ll never think about stories the same way again.

2. Open with a bang or a body.

Think James Bond. Or Agatha Christie. James Patterson. Or Garry Rodgers. AK-47s. Or dismembered hookers. Biological bombs. Or a corpse hanging from a meat-hook. A sharp hook… which is the oldest storytelling device and still the best.

You’ve got about ten seconds to hook your reader and keep their face in the page. So start off fast and slowly add backstory. Build it up, then end with a bang. Maybe another body, too.

3. Big, struggling characters.

Every great story is about the human struggle. Good and evil. Right and wrong. Order and chaos. Those sorts of things.

You need protagonists and antagonists who are larger than life – who are not perfect, but are trapped in the story arch – outwitting others to survive. Great characters that have to lie, cheat, doublecross, and undermine to overcome. Great characters with great dialogue… the second greatest storytelling device. So sharpen your dialogue, as well as your hook.

4. Red Herrings.

Nothing in page turners can be as it seems.

Is the good guy bad? Is the bad guy good? Are the gays straight and the straights not? How come the prime suspect’s DNA doesn’t match. Why does everyone drive a black truck? Who the Christ is Archibald Wiggers? How come he knows why the informants had to be murdered yet the reader doesn’t know till the end?

But in ‘The End’ everything has to make perfect sense. Looking back, it has to be entirely expected and the only way the story could have unfolded.

5. Accurate details.

Just the facts, Ma’am.

Nothing will blow your credibility quicker than screwing up things like calling a 9mm a revolver, or saying the cadaver was prone on its back. So much information is available today. A quick Wikipedia or Google search will prevent a set-down, never-to-finish read or horrible, horrible trashings on your Amazon reviews. Time lines are critical and reversing your sequence of events is inexcusable.

Do your research. Do your homework. And be careful out there.

Writing crime-fiction really is basic. It’s all about reader experience.

GarryRodgers_OpGarry Rodgers is a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective and forensic coroner who also served as a sniper on British SAS-trained Emergency Response Teams. His Amazon Top 10 BestSelling novel No Witnesses To Nothing is based on a true crime story where many believe that paranormal intervention occurred. Garry is also a recognized firearms expert and considered to beNoWitnessesToNothing_Op one of the most knowledgeable people on the John F. Kennedy Assassination. He welcomes your forensic and crime-writing questions. Check out Garry’s blogsite www.dyingwords.net where he provokes thoughts on life, death, and writing. Follow on Twitter @GarryRodgers1 or email him at garry.rodgers @ shaw.ca

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18 Responses to 5 Killer Tips For Writing Deadly Crime Fiction

  1. Pamela Beason (@PamelaBeason) December 8, 2014 at 2:15 pm #

    Great advice, and the term “penmonkeys” is priceless! Thanks, Garry and Molly!

    • Molly Greene December 8, 2014 at 3:11 pm #

      Thanks, Pam!!

    • Garry Rodgers December 8, 2014 at 6:04 pm #

      Hi Pam. I like to keep a light-hearted approach to a very dark genre.

  2. John Scherber December 8, 2014 at 2:21 pm #

    As the author of 22 books, 15 of them mysteries and thrillers, I would say that this painfully understates the process of writing. Some of it is true, but the rest condescends to encourage a crude and low skill approach. On a scale of ten, a three.

    • Molly Greene December 8, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

      Thanks, John. I’m sure Garry meant his article to be an overview, with a twist of humor.

    • Garry Rodgers December 8, 2014 at 6:34 pm #

      Hi John,

      Thanks for reading this and commenting. I respect your opinion and I agree that this simplifies the writing process. That’s what the post was meant to do.

      This piece is about crime fiction – a genre that has so few writers who’ve actually been in and around the crime world. I’ve seen many writers, even the big name ones, get so much wrong because they’ve never been there. I have, and I’m trying to help make crime writers better.

      Skill is a thing that writers build over time – as in every craft. It goes without saying that every successful storyteller needs a degree of writing skill. What I see is that developing writers get so hung-up on conflicting and overwhelming advice that they fail to see the bullets for the ammunition.

      I outlined the basics of crime writing and I don’t apologize if you think I’m crude. The reality is that most criminals are crude, disgusting, devious pricks that should be removed from the gene pool, but for some reason millions want to read about them.

      So I’m not sugar-coating what it takes to be real in writing crime fiction. I often quote Stephen King “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, then your days as a member of polite society are numbered.”

  3. Larry Crane December 8, 2014 at 3:08 pm #

    Hello Garry, I like your no nonsense approach. Story is everything.

    • Molly Greene December 8, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

      I love it too, Larry! Sometimes authors need to get rid of the chaff and just get down to it – pick up the pen (or laptop!) and start. Posts like this help.

    • Garry Rodgers December 8, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

      Thanks, Larry.

      It’s my nature and it worked well for me as a cop and a coroner. Now that I’ve reincarnated as a writer, I see no need to change style.

      The tagline on my blogsite is “Provoking Thoughts on Life, Death, and Writing” so when I see comments – good, bad, or otherwise – then I guess I’ve succeeded 🙂

      I agree that it’s all about story. The great thing is that there are so many individual styles in telling it. BTW – Are you an Elmore Leonard fan?

  4. Molly Greene December 9, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    Garry, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you – so much! – for allowing me to share this fabulous post with my readers. Your “just do it” approach reminds us to stop overthinking everything, simplify our intentions, and just sit down and write. You’ve shared the high points of what is important to a plot with us, and for that I’m grateful!

  5. Belinda Pollard December 9, 2014 at 5:52 pm #

    Molly and Garry, I think there’s a lot to be said for getting back to Story. We spend so much time agonising over technique that it can suck the life out of a narrative.

    I also think it’s very true that a large percentage of readers out there don’t notice many of the things that some self-styled writing “experts” forbid. The bulk of readers are not reading the writing blogs. What they notice is that the story is good and keeps drawing them onwards. Or it isn’t and it doesn’t.

    Sometimes we need someone to write bluntly about it, to shake us free of the paranoia about “rules” that is killing our passion for writing.

    Learn the rules, so you’ll know when and how to break them with panache. Rules are meant to be a writer’s servant, not their master. Communication is the key. If the writing communicates, it’s successful.

    • Garry Rodgers December 9, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

      Hi Belinda & thanks for getting it.

      Little true story about rules…

      I was educated in a one room, small town, Canadian school in the 60’s. My classmate, Douggie Anderson, was from a different race and different socio-economic demographic than I was. (We didn’t recognize a difference back then – we just thought we were just kids)

      Teacher: “Douggie – What are rules?”
      Douggie: “Rules are something you’re not supposed to do.”

      Never forgot it.

      • Molly Greene December 10, 2014 at 6:29 am #

        Well said, Belinda and Garry – it IS important to understand the rules w/ regard to writing, but I’ve powered through many a book (such as the Twilight Series) where writing was definitely secondary to story. THAT author’s publisher didn’t seem to think the books needed to be polished to be humungous bestsellers. A general example, I know, but there you have it. YES, craft is important, but story comes first.

    • MM Jaye December 10, 2014 at 11:35 pm #

      Belinda! It’s a waste to fit so much on-the-spot wisdom in a comment! Make a post of it!

      • Molly Greene December 11, 2014 at 7:34 am #

        So true, Maria! Maybe she’ll add it to the guest post she’s writing for me next week 🙂

  6. Garry Rodgers December 9, 2014 at 6:29 pm #

    You’re so welcome, Molly. After all, it was your book Blog It! that was the turning point in my fledgling blogsite gaining traction. I highly recommend Blog It! to all writers, never mind bloggers who are either starting out or running hard.

    I’m a big believer in the KISS principle, Keep It Simple Stupid. I think many writers waste so much time trying to perfect-polish, that they don’t get to the important thing – and that’s Ship It. You really learn from shipping – it’s the crime world version of being there.

    In no way am I belittling the complicated craft of fiction writing. There are so many forms and I know they all have particular rules. I only know crime so I’m just trying to help crime writers simply get it right. God knows I’d suck at writing erotica 🙂

  7. Toby Neal December 11, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

    Couldn’t have said these better myself. Excellent summary of the high points of writing crime fiction.

    • Garry Rodgers December 11, 2014 at 9:59 pm #

      Thanks, Toby. You got it – this was meant to be a high-point summary for beginners (and a reminder for seasoned crime writers) – not a slam on the respectful years of experience that it takes to know the fine points in the genre.

      I struggle with the show vs. tell thing. I get it in principle, but then I look at some of the best crime writers and they wrote pages upon pages of ‘tell’ narrative and it worked for them.

      I think this modern revolution of James Patterson vs Agatha Christie (hard-core show / old-school tell) will come full circle and it’ll once again be OK with the ‘experts’ to just tell the goddam story.

      It’s the voice that counts. It’s what the reader hears. And what the reader wants to hear – sells books.