Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Starting your Crime Novel with Impact

The question of last week was asked by me. I had an ulterior motive in this, in that I am presenting the optional workshop at the Scene of the Crime Festival on Wolfe Island, Ontario, on August 11th.  Here’s the info if you are interested in attending. www.sceneofthecrime.ca.  Wolfe Island is one of the Thousand Islands, and is accessible by Ferry not only from Kingston, Ontario, but also from Cape St. Vincent, N.Y.  Scene of the Crime was recently called by Quill and Quire Magazine, one of Canada’s five most intriguing literary festivals. 

But, I digress.

I was hoping my fellow Criminal Minders would supply some tips for me to use in my workshop. As expected, they certainly did. 

“Seduce the reader” says Hilary.  Lovely idea.

As I always tell my workshop classes, there are no rules (with the exception of ensuring the work has been properly proofread and how to submit a query letter and proposal) in writing, so all I give are guidelines.  I hope you find them useful.

I don’t advise new writers to have a body on the first page, or even in the first  chapter or two.  (Sorry,  Meredith).  This is easy to do if your protagonists are police officers:  the most realistic beginning of the book is likely when the police are called to the scene.  I’ve done that myself in the Constable Molly Smith books more often than not.  Come to think of it, I’ve done it in every one of those books.  

I will hasten to say that I don’t believe a crime novel HAS to involve murder at all.  No murder? Can still be a very effective crime novel (which is why I hate the phrase “murder mystery”).  Some good books ask the question, has there even been a  crime committed here? (eg. Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George).

It seems to me that in books other than police procedurals the body in the opening pages doesn’t always work.  In an amateur sleuth book or a psychological suspense you might be better working at establishing the characters and the setting first.  Create the mood.  When I do manuscript evaluations and critiques I come across bodies dropping in page one with no attempt to first ask the reader to care what’s happening here.  They don’t know anything about the characters, they have no reason to care what’s going on.  Curiosity has not been tweaked, the reader has not been seduced.

A body is found in a field. Shocking! Wow, that takes you right into the story!

But does it?  You are writing a crime novel. It is almost guaranteed that someone will be murdered. So there is actually nothing shocking about it at all.  Without atmosphere, conflict, character, the body in the woods or hidden behind the pew of the church is pretty boring.

What do you need in an effective opening?
·         Begin at the beginning.  Not before.  What is the absolute latest this book can begin in order for it to make sense? That’s where you begin.
·         Conflict. Not necessarily even between two characters. Remember what you learned in high school about the six types of conflict (man vs. machine etc.)
·         The inciting incident or question. The point from which all the rest of the story flows. The question that must be answered.
·         NO background.  Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel says no background before page 100. (see point number 1)
·         Not the weather.  Okay, you might be able to get away with this if the inciting incident is a storm uncovering an old grave or a ship being tossed at sea.  But not a bright sunny day or a light drizzle as the protagonist heads off to the grocery store.
·         Don’t start with an exchange of information. Two friends meet for lunch and discuss how poor Mary is having trouble with her ex-husband. Later Mary ends up dead.  The discussion was not an inciting incident nor did it present a question to be answered. It was just an info dump.

I’ll echo Meredith here. Don’t try to create the perfect opening when you first sit down to begin your book.  If you do you’ll probably never get any further.  Maybe  YOU need to know the background before you can get down to the to the nitty-gritty.

But before you consider your novel finished, ask if the opening is as effective and as good as you can make it. 

More than Sorrow, Coming Sept 4, from Poisoned Pen Press


Meredith Cole said...

Great advice, Vicki! Your workshop sounds like it'll be very useful (wish we could all be there--I'm sure we'd all learn a lot!).

Vicki Delany said...

Thanks, Meredith. At the least, I hope it's fun.