The 1930s in the UK has been called the ‘Golden Age’ of crime writing. The genre was massively popular and some of our best-loved crime writers – Agatha Christie and DL Sayers – were at work. At first sight, it seems perverse that readers in a country still traumatised by the First World War should lap-up stories revolving around violence. One explanation is that crime novels are an antidote to the indiscriminate carnage witnessed and experienced during the ‘Great War’ in that they offer resolution, they come to a meaningful end.
One possible reason that we as humans love stories is this idea of resolution. To misquote Gillie Bolton (The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing, 1999, Jessica Kingsley Publishers) most of us are muddling along with middlings in our daily lives. It is rare that we really get to fully experience a completely obvious beginning or conclusive ending. Stories allow us to enjoy the possibility that things can be settled acceptably. As readers we can relax into the knowledge that the writer will carry us safely to the end page, however disturbing the story might be.
In order for this to be the case, narratives have a structure. To put it in basic terms there is usually: (1) a beginning with a question or crisis; (2) a few peaks of tension – in a crime novel these normally hinge around red herrings and (as we near the end) an increase in jeopardy (someone else is in danger); and then (3) a resolution of sorts. It was rare during the Golden Age for the baddie to ‘get away with it’. However, resolution in today’s crime novels can be less certain. In my first crime novel set in Scarborough, The Art of the Imperfect, the conclusion was flawed, as the title suggests.
When I think about structure, I think of a rail with hangers on. The rail is undulating, some of the hangers sit at the top of an upward sweep, others in a dip. Incidents from my story will eventually sit on these hangers and fill up the rail. Personally, this rail is at the back of my mind when I begin to write, it will only be later that I start to put the hangers in order and decide whether they belong on the crests or in the hollows. But then I am more of a ‘pantser’ than a ‘plotter’ see blog post, How to Write a Crime Novel #3.
The best way to learn about structure is to read, read, read and study structure as you do. Try representing the novel you are reading visually on a ‘rail’ or time-line. Which incidents cause the tension to heighten? Which bring about a lessening in tension? What would happen if you move the hangers/incidents around on the ‘rail’?
What are your tips for structuring a (crime) story?