Sophie Hannah on How to Write Crime Fiction

10th Jul 2014

Sophie Hannah is the author of nine psychological crime novels; distinctive literary mysteries that have earned her fans and accolades from across the globe. We caught up with her to convince her to share her secrets on how she does it...

So if you want the lowdown on how to write crime fiction, look no further. Because we’ve got Sophie Hannah‘s advice on how she did it, and some crime writing tips and tricks that might just work for you.

Still want more? Check out Sophie Hannah’s latest novel, The Telling Error, or catch her at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival next weekend (17th – 20th July).

So, what does Sophie Hannah recommend when it comes to how to write crime fiction? Let’s see…

Start with the impossible

I generally start with what I hope is an intriguing plot hook – perhaps something that seems impossible and yet it’s happening, and no one can imagine why or how. I love the apparently-impossible that turns out to be possible. I’m never aware of struggling to invent parts of the plot.

Be unpredictable

I always love it when people say my plots are unpredictable – it’s one of the things that matters most to me. I think it’s simply that my mind is so strange and eccentric, people can’t guess where it’s going because, frankly, it goes to many places that saner and more temperate minds would avoid!

Embrace the extreme

I don’t sit down and think, ‘What can I write that no one will guess?’ I’ve never thought that. It’s more that the ideas and possibilities I find most compelling are the ones that would only ever happen once, because they’re so unusual and extreme, and so people generally don’t guess them because they haven’t known them to happen in real life many times.

Don’t immediately have all the answers? Don’t panic…

One minute I have no idea what solution the mystery might have, and the next (so far, thank goodness) the answer seems to have appeared in my head as if by magic. Piece by piece, the plot of each book presents itself to me, and I always feel as if all I’m doing is putting it together.

My mind is so strange and eccentric, people can't guess where it's going because, frankly, it goes to many places that saner and more temperate minds would avoid!

Make your characters desperate…

To build and maintain a sense of suspense, it helps to have one or more characters in the novel who are desperate – either to find something out, or save their own or someone else’s life, or to escape from something.

…and multi-layered

I think most people are complex. And I’m not keen on the idea that fiction should make human beings more presentable and easier for the sake of readers. I think books need to reflect people in all their multi-layered inscrutability. Those are the kind of books I enjoy reading most.

Make your readers identify with your central character

Whatever feelings you want the reader to have, you need to give those feelings to a central character, and then, if you do it well enough, hopefully the reader will identify with the feeling.

Cut the waffle

Also, cutting and pruning any words/paragraphs that are unnecessary is a good way of keeping up the pace/suspense. A tautly written novel with no excess verbiage is always going to be more suspenseful than a baggy novel with too much waffle muffling the plot. So I try to look at every line and think, ‘What is this adding that I can’t do without?’ If the answer is nothing, I cut it.

Turn your readers into detectives

In real life, people are puzzles to one another, and we’re all constantly trying to solve each other. We often don’t know who to trust, who is the goodie and who the baddie in various situations. We have to make decisions based on uncertainty, and try to work other people out as best we can.

Crime fiction is the genre that puts this important human dilemma at its centre. I am also a very curious (some might say nosy!) person, so I love a genre in which the central motivation for reading on is a desire to find something out. I would love to be a detective myself!

Learn from the best

Read other authors who know how to write crime fiction: Agatha Christie, Val McDermid, Tana French, Ruth Rendell, Nicci French, SJ Watson, Laura Lippman, Fergus McNeil, M R Hall… and many others!

And most of all…

The most important thing is to have a great story to tell, or a great plot. Everything else can be fixed, but the lack of a compelling plot line is (in my humble opinion) fatal to a novel.

What’s the most valuable advice on how to write crime fiction you’ve ever read or received? Add your crime writing tips and tricks in the comments, or head to Harrogate next weekend for the 10th Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, featuring incredible crime fiction authors including Sophie Hannah, Denise Mina, Belinda Bauer, Val McDermid and many more.

(Image via Michael Melchiorre)