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The Dos and Don’ts of Crime Writing

Guest Post by David Jackson, 

author of A Tapping At My Door  out now



I thought this might be a tough blog post to write, and not only because I had to work out where the apostrophes go in “dos and don’ts”. In general I don’t believe it’s my place to dictate to others how or what they should write. That said, I think there are a number of dos and don’ts that are generally accepted and that might be found useful, especially to aspiring crime writers. Here, then, in no particular order, is my list:


Don’t put anyone in a red shirt

This shouldn’t be taken too literally (sartorial decisions are yours alone!). I’m referring here to characters who are introduced simply to kill them off again. In the original Star Trek series, such short-lived characters were almost invariably dressed in the red tops of the security staff. We never got to know anything else about them. In a crime novel there is space to make your victims a bit more three-dimensional. Give your victim a bit of back-story. Even better – let the reader into the thought processes of your victims prior to their demise. Without that, your reader won’t care, and readers should always be encouraged to care about your characters.


Don’t dismiss technology

In any modern crime story, remember that technology is everywhere. City centres are bristling with CCTV, and nearly everyone carries a mobile phone. I hate it when a character’s phone battery suddenly dies at a key moment in a novel. Instead of employing weak escape routes like this, try to find more ingenious ways of incorporating technology into your story.


Do get the basics of investigation right, but don’t make it too realistic

If you have police officers in your crime story, make sure you’re aware of the basics of how they operate, and what they can and cannot do. If you’re not sure, ask. On the other hand, you don’t need to go overboard on procedure. Most coppers will tell you that the routine of police work is tedious, and the last thing you want is for tedium to be prominent in your story. When it comes to my own fictional detectives, I know I have been guilty of sacrificing realism in the name of story, but I make no apology for that.


Do include humour

The coppers I’ve met have all had a well-developed sense of humour. They need it to deal with the stresses of the job they do. Too many crime books overlook this side of things, leading to stories that are either drearily serious or unremittingly bleak. You don’t need to attempt full-blown comedy (which is a really difficult task), but at least lighten things now and again with a bit of banter or sarcasm. Introducing contrast in this way will give the darker moments much more impact.


Do blur the lines between good and evil

Goodies aren’t wholly good, and baddies aren’t wholly bad. Every character in your book represents a human being, and all humans are capable of thoughts and actions that are both commendable and detestable. In any novel you are asking your readers to identify with your protagonist and follow them on a journey. I think this is easier to do if the hero isn’t perfect, because none of us is in real life. Similarly, real villains don’t wake up every day delighting in how evil they are and the plans they have for world devastation. They may spend most of their lives as morally upstanding citizens; they may be capable of acts of great kindness; they may think they have justifiable reasons for the crimes they commit. Looking at both sides of the coin makes for much more complicated and interesting characters.




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