The Secret To Crime Writing

26th March 2013
3 min read
12th October 2020

This is the second installment in a series of three blogs by crime and screenwriter M. R. Hall. Here, he discusses the key principles he goes by when beginning to construct his crime novels.

In my last post for Writers & Artists I set out one of the key principles I use when constructing crime novels, hoping to assist aspiring writers in giving dramatic shape to their ideas.

Secret One was simply this: you must have something profound and heartfelt to say. Assuming you’ve found that issue, the one that fills you with a burning passion, the next step is to create a central character who can help you dramatize it to the fullest extent.

Quite often, badly written central characters suffer from too little internal conflict. Our everyday experience of life is that it’s full of contradictions and obstacles – we are constantly weighing up our motives and fighting against our own fears and inadequacies. In drama or novels, we have to heighten this universal experience as much as we dare.

My second principle, or Secret Two is this: the central character must have a moral centre, but also be conflicted on many levels.

Creating your central character’s inner landscape will be the single most important piece of preparatory work you do. Here are some of the most important questions you can ask yourself when creating an emotional engaging protagonist full of dramatic potential:

  1. Who is my central character?
  2. Describe his/her principal characteristics, both physical and emotional.
  3. Does my character have a moral code or set of rules to live by? What are its principal tenets?
  4. Is my character’s moral code one which readers will be able to subscribe to? 
  5. What are my character’s principal external conflicts? i.e. with whom will my character clash on a regular and ongoing basis?
  6. What are my character’s principal internal conflicts? i.e. what elements of my character’s psyche are at war with one another?
  7. How will my character’s external and internal conflicts affect his or her decision making and throw up difficulties as they pursue their investigation?

Sometimes we get lucky and our characters come to us fully formed, but more often than not they take a lot of hard work. The heroine of my novels, Jenny Cooper, has been a mixture of both. The more complex and surprising your hero or heroine the keener your audience or readers will be to spend more time with them. Always remember that a deeply flawed character is far more interesting than one with few problems.

Writing stage