The craft of crime writing: staying dark
This is the first post from Salt on the craft of crime writing. It invites crime writers or aspiring crime writers to share tips and problems, and to use the blog as a workshop. The Salt crime list will be launched in November!
Today’s post is about staying ‘dark’. By this I mean maintaining the suspense and the tension that you have created in the first chapter all the way through the novel. It is a real problem for even the most accomplished crime writer.
You will almost certainly make sure that at the beginning your crime novel gives the reader a jolt – with a tensely atmospheric scene, perhaps, or the cruel innermost thoughts of a villain who is the more frightening for being anonymous, or simply the discovery of something which poses a threat to the protagonist. Although you will have worked hard to craft this first chapter in order to grab the reader’s attention, typically you will find it much harder to keep hold of the suspense as the story unfolds and the reader finds out more. Familiarity breeds comfort, and the reader is no longer on the edge of his or her seat!
What can you do about it? One trick is to keep on introducing unexpected twists and turns in the plot until the very end, to keep the reader guessing: but there is a danger of overdoing this, and ending up with a contrived story with too many surprising outcomes to remain credible. Keeping the perpetrator anonymous also works, and the majority of crime writers use this for at least part of the novel: the skill then is to know when and how to reveal more, because if you end up with a cardboard cut-out villain, the reader will not care whether s/he is caught or not.
There seems to be a fashion among American crime writers to complete their novels with a ‘folksy’ ending, in which, say, the family gathers over a barbecue to discuss all of the vicissitudes that they have overcome, The object of this seems to be to set the scene for a return to normality – the adult equivalent of ‘they lived happily ever after’. It imposes a kind of morality, and emphasises that (broadly) the good guys win. This is not quite the same thing as failing to stay dark, because it is a device that has been used deliberately, and it may even be expected by an established writer’s loyal readership; but it detracts from the intensity of the novel in the same way; and for this reason may appeal less to European readers.
Do you have problems with staying dark? Can you recommend writers who handle it really well?
In the Family