Henry Sutton reveals his top ten tips for crafting compelling crime fiction

Posted by Bethan Hirst - Wednesday, 8 Nov 2023


So here’s the thing: what is crime fiction? A police procedural? A psychological thriller? A locked room mystery? A cosy crime caper? It’s all those things and many, many more. In a literary sense it can be a form of narrative that moves with pace and purpose, while thematically dealing with a crime (or crimes) at the core of the story.

However, fictional narratives revolve around character (not just fancy plot twists and misdirections). Our engagement with and connection to key characters invariably determine the success and certainly the memorability of a work of crime fiction. But formal innovation and departure from known parameters (or so-called rules), along with wildly expansive cross-genre fertilisation is not only reassembling the old pack, but creating whole new games, or ways of telling stories.

If I was to put my finger on the essence of what makes a good crime story now, I would say drama, accessibility, accountability (ahead of experimentation). As crime fiction writers, we want to create highly compelling and imaginative works. We want these books to be coherent, clear, approachable, while also being (for me anyway) syntactically stylish (think noir, think hardboiled). We also want them to be authentic, responsible, sensitive and not gratuitous. I would suggest, too, that they can be highly enlightening and socially and politically pertinent and astute. But crime fiction, for me, is not the place to preach. It’s not polemic. Largely, it’s to entertain. OK, as a highly dynamic and versatile literary form, it can explore and interpret the human condition and a state of being, as successfully as more obvious and so labelled forms of ‘literary’ expression. Though it needs to do more than that.

For years, decades, I’ve been teaching, critiquing and writing crime fiction. I have come to the conclusion that at its best the crime novel can be the most perfect form of literary expression, engagement and entertainment. Think about those three words, and how they might combine in relation to form and function. Yes, crime fiction is ever dynamic and ever inclusive. However, as a practicing writer I strive to attain goals. I want to create that perfect crime novel. I believe I know what it might look like – for me at least. Yet I’m realistic and experienced enough to know that I’ll never achieve that goal, which is why I, like all writers, keep going, keep trying. Apart from everything else, writing and reading are highly individual pursuits.

If there is a helpful commonality, it’s perhaps in the fact that while we’re all individuals, doing our own thing, we are also a community, a community of crime writers. We are not alone. We can also draw on others’ experiences and work, along with our own – as I have done extensively in Crafting Crime Fiction – for the benefit of emerging writers as well long standing practitioners. I hope my book is both a help and a comfort. A writing guide maybe. Fundamentally it is a distillation of all that I know about this most expansive, and elusive of genres. To get you going, here’s my 10-part guide to the theory and practice of crime fiction:

  1. Plot: begins and ends with character
  2. Character: defined by point of view and desire
  3. Events: get in the way
  4. Setting: a character too
  5. Structure: develops around a timeline
  6. Pace: where motivation meets descriptive economy
  7. Suspense: comes from questions, not answers   
  8. Mystery: works better if the surprise has menace
  9. Entertainment: hangs on engagement
  10. Craft: pulls it all together

Watch Henry Sutton introduce Crafting Crime Fiction

Crafting Crime Fiction
By Henry Sutton

‘Entertaining and valuable.’
Mick Herron, author of Slow Horses

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