Friday, 4 June 2021

So you want to write a crime novel. Part 6: Structure


Structure – otherwise known as Can of Worms.

 People – both authors and lecturers in creative writing – attach a lot of importance to structure for the reason that the framework of your novel is vital to its ebb and flow. In other words, without the structure, your story, like a house must have sound foundations and a strong set of scaffolding to prevent it from crumbling into the dust mid-build. There are several types of formal structure. Here are four of the more formal.

 The Three-Act Structure.

 This is the structure most often used, for the excellent reason that it keeps the author on track with the readers standing at your character’s shoulder watching the action unfold.

 At its most basic, Act One involves the introduction of your characters and setting, the progression of your plot (the events in your story) through your characters to what is called the point of no return. Which means your detective makes the irrevocable decision to carry on because there is too much evidence of wrong-doing to not carry on.

 Act Two is where the majority of the action takes place, where you lead the reader up as many garden paths as you can logically fit in, send them in circles and get to the point where your detective has all the clues – as has the reader – but misreads them and enters what I call the dark night of the soul. This is where they have a serious crisis of confidence.

 Act Three is where the detective picks themselves up, brushes themselves down and starts all over again, this time managing to link the clues properly – which your carefully constructed garden paths have stopped the reader from doing – and leads on to the thrilling, tense and dangerous denouement. Followed by a quick come-down scene, which can be presented as an afterword or epilogue.

 The Three-Act structure fits the rhythm of a crime novel very well, but do not feel that you cannot experiment. I suggest you begin with this format and branch out when you know the rhythm of your writing and how you can play with the structure of your books.

 As a rough guide, Act 1 is usually around a quarter or perhaps a little more of the book, Act 2 half of it and Act 3, which should be fairly fast and frantic, the last quarter.

The Mirror Structure

 This is where you start with the last character or setting and end with the first and this can take the form of a prologue or a chapter or just a couple of pages. The writing must be very clever because the author has a duty to remain true to seeding clues and being fair to the reader. However, the great advantage of this method is that you can write partial sections with no resolution, which reflects life. Not every end will be tied up. BUT the main questions must be answered.

 If your story starts as the mystery ends, then you must still have enough of a story to answer the posed question – what happened to X and who committed the crime? – for that not to be answered until the end of the book.

For example, you could start with either a first person or third person short prologue about why the unnamed and, if you can, un-gendered, narrator —usually the perpetrator — rationalises what he or she did. It is a kind of In my end is my beginning type of book and if you can pull it off, it will be spectacular.

The Milieu Structure

 This relies on the world in which your story occurs. In other words, setting is key. The story starts when your main character enters the world and ends when they leave it. It is almost a bystander’s story, a narrator who cares nothing for the main character or his/her journey arc, only how what the MC does or does not do affects the bystander’s world. This would lend itself to crime stories with a supernatural element where the setting is so important as to almost be a character. And, with this structure, the author can use an omnipotent point of view. But there are serious traps set for the unwary here, so if you want to try this format, do your research about which authors use it and read the books to get a good understanding of the structure.

The Idea and Character Story

This is where the idea starts the ball rolling. Who gets killed, who killed him/her and how the killer is caught. The character story is exploring how your main character grows – or doesn’t – through the action of finding the killer. And please, I beg of you, no washed up cops, who drink too much and have inner demons. My own opinion is that if you want to read of such characters and how they cope — or don’t — read literary fiction. A crime story is about crime. It involves characters and how they see the world and yes, you probably need to allow the reader into a bit of their private lives, but would you take all your angst and demons to work with you? Do you think if you did you would be in that job very long?

 In next month’s blog, I will be dealing with character.







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