Is There a Crime Writing Formula?

JK Rowling, using the pen name Robert Galbraith, has written 3 crime novels and her latest, Career of Evil has just been published. In an interview with Simon Mayo on Radio 2 last week (also discussed with Ian Rankin on the same programme yesterday), she said crime fiction follows a formula. She’s not the first to suggest this and if pushed, I think it would look something like this.

Start                                        Crime – murder/rape/robbery

Bulk of the book                   Police investigation/twists & dead ends

End                                           Climax/resolution

In a way, the ‘formula’ is no different from the format of every story as there is a beginning, middle and end, and while the first few chapters of any book tries to answer the question, why you should read this, crime fiction does this by initially revealing an evil deed. By the end, the perpetrators are usually dead or brought to justice and the reader left with a sense that good prevailed, but this is not always the case. Many crime authors deliberately leave loose threads, perhaps to pick up in future novels or allow criminals to keep the proceeds of their crimes.

The reason why readers return to crime novels time and again, even though plots may sound familiar or a book might be the fifth or sixth in a series, is due to the quality of writing. Clever plotting and a unique denouement are wasted in the hands of a sloppy writer, while a weak, tired or hackneyed plot will be lifted by smart, eloquent prose. Anyone hoping to succeed as a writer needs to include elements of both.

It is not wrong to suggest that crime fiction has a formula but it is a self-evident truth and applies to most genres of fiction. What is also clear, is the most read and purchased books are not those with the sharpest story lines and most spectacular endings, but those written with care, evoking a sense of time and place and inhabited by memorable characters.

What do you think?

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