Killing your darlings and other stories – Liam Murray Bell’s Crime Writing Tips

To tie in with this year’s Bloody Scotland Short Story Competition, on the theme of ‘Escape’, I’ve been asked to draw up some hints and tips for all you crime writers out there, along the lines of the ‘rules’ for writing that Elmore Leonard drew up in 2010 .

So here they are: my five tips for writing a crime short story. Happy writing!

1) First impressions count. Grab the reader with your opening scene. Hell, grab them with your opening line – drag them into the plot by getting them to ask What has happened? or What will happen next? These two questions, in essence, are the cornerstone of plot, tied to the idea of a whodunit and a cliff-hanger. Even better, get the opening line to ask both questions, as with the opening line to Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write”.

2) Avoid cliché in your similes and metaphors like the plague. This is not because similes and metaphors don’t work – they do – but a tired image will just cause your reader to skip over it. Make it original and bold and tie it into the voice of your character. You can’t go wrong with Philip Marlowe, the detective written by Raymond Chandler, who’s never far from an original wise-crack, like “I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split”.

3) Following on from the last point, think about the voice of your main character and how close you want the reader to be to them. This can be in third person or in first person, but make sure it’s consistent and that you’re signalling to the reader if/when you’re shifting point-of-view. The degree of intimacy between the character and the reader is important because it can produce sympathy or, even, a degree of complicity. So, for instance, Jeff Lindsay is able to produce some form of feeling for his serial-killer character of Dexter by giving him a platform for a ‘confession’: “I know what I am and that is not a thing to love”. Ah, bless.

4) Think about your structure. This is a short story you’re writing, so there’s no point in setting up a police investigation that’s never going to be concluded or setting up a will-they-won’t-they love affair. Your story should have a beginning, middle and an end, although not necessarily in that order. And why not a twist, to cap it all off. Like this tip not ending with a quote like all the others have – didn’t see that one coming, did you?

5) Edit. Sounds obvious, but make sure that the work you’re putting forward is the very best it can be by re-writing and re-working until you’re happy with setting, character, plot and the prose style. If possible, let it lie in a drawer or on your desk for a few days before editing or give it to a trusted reader for comments and corrections. And be brutal with your edits: even if you love a line, if it doesn’t fit or work then leave it out. You can always keep it in a notebook for another story. As the saying goes, “Kill your darlings”. As Stephen King says, “Even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings”.

Liam Murray Bell is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Stirling and author of ‘So It Is’, shortlisted for Scottish Book of the Year 2013, and ‘The Busker’, released in May 2014.

Liam will also be holding workshops during the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Masterclasses at the University of Stirling on Friday 19th September. You can find more information and book your place here.

 Enter our Bloody Scotland Short Story Competition before 31st July for the chance to win £1000, a weekend pass to the festival and a bottle of Deanston Single Malt Whisky.