A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a workshop run by the Queensland Writers Centre: ‘Beyond the Whodunit’ with Emily Maguire. Emily is the author of several fiction and non-fiction novels, including An Isolated Incident, a story that explores the crushing grief experienced by a woman living in a small town after her sister is brutally and inexplicably murdered. The novel was shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Awards, the 2017 Stella Prize and the 2017 Ned Kelly Awards. Emily kindly shared her advice on how to write a story that goes beyond stereotypes, and builds and maintains suspense to keep readers engaged. Here are my top ten favourite things Emily discussed at the workshop – which are useful tips for writers across all genres, not just crime fiction.
1. Choose the right setting for your crime. A crime in one setting may barely cause a ripple in another. For example, a murder in a small country town will have more of an impact on the community than it would in a big city where crimes happen more regularly. The function of crime fiction is to disrupt the world in which your story is set. Consider in which setting your crime will have the most dramatic consequences for your characters.
2. Use setting to reveal backstory. Your ‘detective’ or main character will have an intriguing backstory that should be revealed gradually, not an info dump at the start of chapter two. Use setting to reveal backstory in the context of the person seeing it. What memories does the setting evoke for that character? Use active writing while your character moves through and explores the space. This advances the plot at the same time as drip-feeding clues about your character’s past.
3. Know your antagonist. A good way to kill the suspense in your whodunit is to make your antagonist predictable and cartoonish. Your reader won’t be afraid of your villain if they come across as Dastardly Whiplash. Ask yourself the question – how does your antagonist sleep at night? Hardly anyone thinks they’re a bad person – they find ways to justify their wrongdoings. When you know why your murderer can rationalise what they’ve done, you will have a truly terrifying antagonist.
4. Know your victim. Make sure you known your victim deeply, even if the information doesn’t end up on the page. Whatever happens to the victim has to feel like it really matters to the other characters in the story, and to the reader. Readers will make judgments about how worthy this victim is. Show your victim was a person who had a full life.
5. Make life hard for your main character. Readers need to feel like your characters may not survive the predicament they’re in and that if they fail, it will have dire consequences. Your story won’t be gripping if it’s predictable. Raise the stakes by complicating your character’s life in ways that may not even be related to the story question. Make them lose their job. Have their partner break up with them. Set their house on fire. Break some of their bones. Be really creative about how you can ruin your main character’s life.
6. Avoid abstract terms. When describing your characters, be specific. Instead of describing someone as ‘loyal’ – ask yourself, what does ‘loyal’ look like? Whose opinion is it that they are loyal? Have they worked in the same job for twenty years, do they always remember birthdays or are they a staunch West Coast supporter? People are complicated and there are many ways to refresh stereotypes to make a person come to life on the page.
7. Consider your pacing to create suspense. Action scenes are exciting but non-stop action is exhausting. Quiet moments create suspense because they allow the reader to settle – but they also generate worry and concern. Terrible action usually happens after a very quiet or happy moment. This feeling of impending doom will have the reader turning the pages hoping it won’t happen, but knowing it will.
8. Increase suspense by using dual narratives. Switching point of view between chapters is a popular device in crime fiction. The idea is that the reader becomes engrossed in one character’s story and then finds the chapter ends on a cliffhanger or question. They’ll quickly turn to the next chapter, only to discover it’s written in a different character’s point of view. But if the writing is good, they’ll become absorbed in the new character’s story. Apart from An Isolated Incident, another recent example of an effective dual narrative is The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham.
9. Compress and expand time when writing scenes. If a scene isn’t working or isn’t exciting, try expanding some scenes and compressing others. A simple action, such as reaching for a knife, might continue across several paragraphs to drag out the tension, but if a day goes by where nothing important happens, it can be summarised in a sentence.
10. Have a compelling story question. Your story question, or story problem, is what keeps someone reading. For example in Force of Nature by Jane Harper, the story question is – what happened to Alice? Having a clear idea of your story question keeps your plot focused because it drives your characters towards an answer. The story question, plus compelling characters, high stakes and the possibility of failure is what creates suspense.
Buy An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire here.
Find out more about what’s on at the Queensland Writers Centre here.