Monday, April 25, 2011

Joyce Juzwik is a good friend of mine. A fellow writer who dabbles, often and with huge amounts of talent, into the fine art of the macabre. Bloody tales of the strange and twisted. She is a good friend. But her writing is . . . well . . . devoted to those who love to read about bad people doing bloody deeds.

Just the kind of writer I like.

She was gracious enough to accept a guest-blogging role here today. And she came up with some interesting rules about writing in the mystery genre. See if you agree with them. Or disagree.


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!

BIO: J.F. Juzwik has had a crime fiction novel and a six-part children’s fantasy series published by DiskUsPublishing and a horror short included in the anthology Deathgrip: The Legacy, published by Hellbound Books. Her crime fiction/noir stories have appeared in A Twist of Noir, Powder Burn Flash, and Crooked. She blogs about writing crime and horror, and her blog also contains numerous flash pieces and the occasional review.


  1. Like I said somewhere else; when it comes to writing, the rules have a tendency to get broken by the very talented. Often spectacularly.

  2. This is a great post, Joyce. Given I'm not a fan of many of these "rules," I'd love to someone with the time and access run a survey on how readers and writers actually feel about them, as so much of what writers have to accept as "truth" is really no more than an accumulation of conventional wisdom. (We see how well conventional wisdom has served publishing lately.

    The issue I have with these "rules" is that they seem best suited for a traditional puzzle mystery, a la Agatha Christie or Rex Stout. "Crime stories" allow for a lot more flexibility, as the author may not care so much if you know who did it, but is more interested in what's going to happen because of it.

  3. Thanks, BR and Joyce. I think I may have learned something from this great review.

  4. Dana, It's wild because if you look around the web, you'd be surprised (maybe not) by how many writers actually value these very same 'rules' when they write noir. Noir cannot have rules, nor can crime fiction. While I agree that perhaps traditional type mysteries might have preferred sequencing and so on, I think it's awful to try to contain creativity and make writers feel like they have to conform to content.

    Format, word counts, we all have to conform depending on the publisher. But the creative process can't be held back and caged--at least, it shouldn't be.

  5. Jeanette, Glad you enjoyed this. I know I learned a great deal too. When it comes to the creative aspect, rules should go out the window. You can't put imagination on an assembly line and produce the same stuff over and over. That's how I perceive these rules affecting someone's work. Creativity has to be free of constraints. They should be referred to as guidelines or suggestions--never rules.