Keeping the Pages Turning

This post originally appeared here

As discussed last time, a crime novel can appear under many different guises. But to truly fit in the genre, it must have one element: tension. Your readers will never forgive you if the pace drags and they’re not compelled to carry on late into the night. Ian Fleming’s famous definition of a thriller was ‘one simply has to turn the page’, and this hits on the most essential quality of crime. It doesn’t really matter what you write about, but if it’s not gripping, it’s not good enough.

Sustained interest is usually created by two elements: 1. A need to find out what’s happening, and 2: caring about the people it’s happening to. The crime writer has many tricks up their sleeve to create the first – cliff-hangers, short scenes, shifts in viewpoint, the reader knowing something the character doesn’t and vice-versa. There’s the slow reveal – information drip-fed throughout the story, tantalising details, hints of dark secrets. This works well with a book where the crime has happened in the past and the storyline flashes between then and the present. There’s the locked-room puzzle –  I thought the variation of this (where a crime had to have been committed by one of a small group on a remote island) was the best aspect of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and the element that perked up my interest after all those pages about finance skulduggery. Sophie Hannah is also especially good at setting up puzzles that have you wondering how on earth this bizarre situation could be possible. You just have to read on to find out what’s happening, like peering through a key hole at an image which is gradually revealed. Then there’s the race against time, or the ‘scene of extended peril’ as they say in films, where the reader has to know what will become of your characters, who, being a nice crime writer, you’ve plunged into mortal danger. These techniques are why crime writers have to be in control of their plot and pacing.

The second task is harder. How do you create characters people care about? It’s no good inventing the worst tortures in the world if the reader’s response is to yawn and check what’s happening on The Apprentice. If your heroine’s crouched under the bed with the crazed killer rifling through her pants drawer, we won’t care unless we care about her. We might even be rooting for the killer, just so we don’t have to hear any more from your irritating character. By contrast, if we really care about the people in your story we’ll be on the edge of our seats to see if they find their lost keys or get the sandwich they want for lunch (think of all those really trivial statuses from your friends on Facebook).

Characters should be believable – if we can imagine this happening to someone we know, we’ll care. They should also be human – it’s tempting to try to create a lead with a variety of personality tics, especially if you’re writing a police procedural. The detective is such an over-written figure that to make them stand out it would be easy to add an eyepatch, a pet iguana, and a love of drinking Pina Coladas. But that’s all they are – tics. We need to believe they’re a real person, with real and believable human responses to situations. It’s fine for your character to be damaged or unusual in some way – indeed it’s almost mandatory in some types of crime novel – but they need to still feel real. They also need to go through human emotions – loss, anger, triumph, and perhaps most importantly, love. If a character has something to love, they have something to lose, and that’s when we start to care. Using these techniques, it’s possible to make us care about even the most terrible villain. And how much more interesting is the novel if we’re made to care about a person who’s done something unforgiveable.

It’s quite simple when you break it down. Your character should go on a journey throughout the book – they need to find something out, or solve a puzzle, or get themselves or a loved one out of danger, or even just return to the life they had before the story started. As the writer you need to make us care about them, and follow them breathlessly on their progress.

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