Sunday, April 24, 2011


During my travels through various writing sites, I noticed several of them mentioned rules that should be followed whenever writing a crime fiction/noir novel. While there were minor differences in phraseology, the supposed ‘rules’ were pretty consistent. Let’s explore each of these.

1. Whoever your killer is, make sure you let your readers meet him or her early on. You don’t want them to pop up out of nowhere late in the story.

I’m not certain I even understand this. Generally speaking, with crime fiction, there is an element of mystery involved. Are they saying you should reveal the identity of your killer as ’the’ killer or just allow the reader to get to know the character early on, but not let on what he or she has done or is planning to do? Since I’m not clear on what this actually means, I’m also not clear on how this is to be accomplished.

2. At least one murder should occur within the first three chapters.

Here I totally agree. When I’m reading a crime novel, if the bodies aren’t piling up by the end of Chapter 3, I’m done with it. At the risk of sounding psychotic here, if your novel includes one or more murders, I do feel the first one, at a minimum, should occur fairly early on. Locales, characters, basic storyline, all critical elements, but it comes down to the crime after all. Right?

3. Don’t include offensive crimes.

Regarding this rule, mention was made of the subjects of rape, child molestation and cruelty of animals being strictly taboo. While I cannot agree that any subject should be regarded as forbidden, I will agree that there are some that require handling in a tactful and sensitive manner. If any of these types of occurrences are relevant to the storyline, they should be included. However, make sure they are relevant. Don’t add these, or any other form of cruelty simply for shock value. That’s the lazy way out and requires no writing talent of any kind.

4. The crime has to be believable.

What? I’m not sure where this came from. It’s a sad state of affairs, but in the world today, unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of limits to what people will do to each other. Perhaps it refers to not including anything supernatural or a comic book type of crime, whatever that may be. I could use some clarification here.

5. Research when necessary.

Now on this one, I agree 200%. Whether it concerns a particular location you are using or your weapon of choice, make sure you incorporate accurate information. If the city in your novel is fictional, go wild with your street names, businesses and what have you. But if your city is an existing one, you’d better make sure your directions from such and such restaurant to so and so hotel in the downtown area are perfect. You never know. One of your readers might have been born right down the street from there. Even if none of your readers have ever been near your city of choice, if you don’t know what you’re talking about, somehow it shows. I can’t explain it, but as a reader, I don’t have to be an expert in any particular field to know when the writer’s been too lazy to look at a map. The same goes for weapons and especially areas of science. With documentaries on every night of the week discussing DNA and ballistics, inaccuracies will be spotted in a heartbeat. Nothing will turn a reader off a writer quicker than that. Make up your characters, make up your plot, but the things you take from the real world, make sure you keep them real.

6. Don’t reveal the identity of your killer too soon.

I’m not sure, but doesn’t this sort of contradict Item #1? Regardless, I’m not sure this should be a hard and fast rule. I mean, remember my favorite detective, Columbo? You knew within the first five minutes of the show who the killer was, but how their guilt was discovered was the point of the show. The motivation was sometimes revealed at the onset or fully explained at the end, but the killer’s identity was never in question. I don’t see any reason why this wouldn’t be workable in a novel, but it would require careful planning and appropriate presentation.

7. The killer must be capable of the crime.

I don’t believe this refers specifically to the criminal being physically up to whatever activity you have planned. I believe this may refer to him or her being psychologically and/or emotionally capable of committing a particular crime. While we can choose to make any of our characters break the law, before we choose the crime they are to commit, we need to examine who we’ve created. What kind of person is this? What are their likes and dislikes? What are their fears? For instance, if you’ve included something about a character’s childhood where they were traumatically scarred by being locked in a dark closet, don’t have them waiting for their victim in a pitch-black alley. I know that’s an oversimplification, but I hope you see what I’m getting at. We shouldn’t have our character who’s terrified of fire commit an arson, or if we have one who knows they’re a bleeder get involved in a knife fight and risk being injured in the struggle. Makes no sense. Make sure the crime fits the criminal and vice versa.

8. Start the action early on and keep it going strong.

Here, I agree to a point. While I will admit there is nothing more tedious than reading 10 or 15 pages of thoughts, there is also something very annoying about reading page after page of chases and fights, without really understanding the individuals involved in these confrontations and the motivations for them. I don’t need to know the details of every second of every day of a character’s life, but I do need backstory on how they came to end up where they are at the point the story takes place. I need to know who they have relationships with, what those relationships are like, how other characters fit into their lives and so on. Without well-defined characters, the plot is useless. Just be careful not to go overboard. A chase or fight here and there keeps me turning the pages.

9. Don’t make your good guy the villain.

All I have to say to this is why not? Isn’t that half the fun, having someone who is trusted and seemingly on the side of right and justice turn out to be evil incarnate? I believe that kind of twist adds a lot of flavor to a story. This individual appears supportive and sympathetic to the survivors or victim’s families, totally cooperative with law enforcement, but behind the mask? Only the victims see what’s really there and that’s right before they die. How exciting a storyline that would make.

10. Introduce your crime solver early on.

Lastly, again, why? Referring to TV shows again, take Murder, She Wrote. You knew crime writer, Jessica Fletcher, was going to solve the crime. With Columbo, you knew he was going to catch the guilty party. This works out fine if your central character is a particular detective or PI, and the story is geared around this specific individual. Then again, there are occasions where a character who has no connection whatsoever with the police or any such area either witnesses a crime or ends up being falsely accused of one and solves it to clear their name. A scenario like that can work very well and I think would pull the reader in nicely as well, since it would involve a ‘regular’ person on the trail of a killer. Imagine the danger they’d be in and the tremendous risks they’d be taking because they wouldn’t have any real resources available to them. The reader could imagine themselves in that situation and think, now, what would I do, or how would I handle that? It certainly would hold their interest.

Okay. We’ve gone through all the so-called ‘rules’ for writing crime fiction. I’ve told you how I feel about them. What about you? Are you naughty or nice? Do you follow these rules or break them every chance you get? Do you feel there should even be rules like these or any others? I believe the word ‘rules’ shouldn’t even come into play here. ‘Helpful guidelines’ maybe, but never ‘rules’. When our minds create, there shouldn’t be any restrictions or limitations on what we imagine. Now, THAT would be a real crime!

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NOTE: My good friend, and fellow creator of the deliciously dark world of noir, B.R. Stateham, was gracious enough to ask me to guest write on his blog (the above has been posted on his blog today too). He's got some fascinating and at times, frightening, characters over there you really should get to know. Head over to B.R.'s blog here. You'll be very glad you did.


  1. Joyce I agree with every one of your observations which is no surprise because you are an experienced author and a highly perceptive woman. I think the rules are good on the whole but the best novels break or bend them. Look at Dostoyevsky's 'Crime And Punishment' perhaps the first great crime novel in which we know exactly who the killer is. It is more a whydunnit. There are so many ways of making it new. My favourite rule is Elmore Leonard's when re reading your stories cut out the boring bits he says.

  2. Great post, Joyce. Like you said about my poem - life would be miserable if we didn't question things - surely the same would go for rules, so Rules Are Meant To Be Broken. I agree wholeheartedly with your take on them but then again someone one day will write the perfect novel by breaking every single one of them.


  3. Great article, Joyce. Very informative... I shall have to bookmark this.

    In writing, I would say this about rules... They might best be thought of as a "starting point", a suggestion even... to be adapted to each individual writer, bending and stretching to a given situation... what will will work for one writer for a particular story, might not for another.. or, might need some subtle (or not so subtle) alteration. Just as one size does not fit all, with respect to clothing, neither can one rule fit all writers. Sometimes we must bring out the shears and pins.

  4. It's good to know the rules so you can break them properly.

  5. Richard, Thanks for your ocmments. Guidelines can be helpful, but how can there be rules governing one's imagination and creativity? There are so many paths a story can follow, we must let it follow them and not be hampered by outside influences.

  6. David, I totally agree. If all stories followed the same plotlines, employed the same characters with the same traits, etc., what's the point? Where's the delightful twists and turns and surprises we all look forward to reading and writing?

  7. Veronica, Well said. Suggestions can be beneficial, but we should listen, then take them or leave them. Writing must come from within the writer--nowhere else.

  8. Thomas, I agree. What does everyone else do? Okay. Now I know what NOT to do. Be original. Always.