Crime fiction as a resource

The genre of crime fiction, in both written and visual forms, can be used as a valuable reference for writers in other genres. I don’t write crime fiction and take my hat off to those who do. If ever there was a category open to hazards and slip-ups, this is it. Divulging the wrong clue at the wrong moment can inadvertently expose the plot sooner than intended and leave the rest of the book, series, play or movie almost moot.

A well-written piece is like an instruction manual for those of us who write other types of fiction. There are so many lessons to be learned from reading a perfectly constructed story unfolding in just the right way to keep the reader interested, guessing and eager for more. But it’s not only books that provide a treasure chest of teaching material for a writer.

I am in awe of such wonderful scriptwriters as Sally Wainwright, the main writer of the detective drama, Scott and Bailey, and Jimmy McGovern who wrote the gripping two part series, Accused. As I watch these episodes, as well as being engrossed in the story, I’m fascinated by how expertly they drop just enough crumbs along the trail to keep the viewer intrigued. The plot is revealed in perfectly constructed stages, often with flashbacks and different points-of-view, and events are presented at just the right moment to throw more legitimate questions into the viewer’s mind.

They are experts in setting pace, dangling hooks and lacing sub-plots into the main framework. They portray characters with colour, contradiction and idiosyncrasies. A simple line cleverly inserted to appear almost insignificant can highlight a great deal about the belief structure of a protagonist which the viewer, often unwittingly, absorbs. For example, in Scott and Bailey, DCI Gill Murray’s comment that a criminal ‘has the mental age of a banana’ shows in those few words (and delivered with her clipped tone), that she has no time for ‘low-life scumbags,’ as she’s also prone to call them. She certainly does not suffer fools and this is made clear within a few short seconds.

Watching these skills played out on screen can provide precious material for any writer. Distilling a complicated story, regardless of the genre, into a tight-knit format that keeps the reader wanting more is no easy task. As a writer, I absorb as many of these visual clues as I can. They are reminders of how important a cleverly placed line of text can be for plot development, revealing a character’s backstory or setting up the next scene. It is also a wonderful source of watching how ‘show, don’t tell’ is crucial in maintaining the viewer’s interest.

Consumers are clever. Readers and viewers alike don’t usually want to be spoon-fed the obvious. We want to think, analyse, guess and predict. It makes the journey exciting and makes us feel like we’re in the story. We buy into it. It is perhaps the greatest reason to stay involved, to keep switching on or turning the page. If a scriptwriter or novelist can achieve this, then that is surely one of the biggest measures of success.

Competition for the readers’ and viewers’ time is more critical than ever so every tool a writer can add to their belt can only be an advantage. For me, then, a leisurely break in front of the box often doubles as a cheap research trip (at least that’s what I tell myself as I settle in with my feet up!).


This post is brought to you by Toni Jenkins.


One thought on “Crime fiction as a resource

  1. Very true. When stuck trying to advance the plot in my own novel, I went to a Guardian crime fiction masterclass with William Ryan, rightly thinking it would tighten things up and give me some tips. And it did!


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