The lights fade out and dim sunlight enters through the windows. From far behind, a woman comes silently, dressed in a discreet beige coat. She looks around suspiciously, keeping her hands in her pockets. As soon as she reaches the front, she turns back and takes out a magnifying glass, as if to search for clues, announcing: “Don’t move! FBI!” She looks serious and alert, as if she really were from the FBI.
This is how our first Girls Write Now workshop about crime fiction opened, as an attempt to personify the investigation and suspense we would talk about. The workshop was a great opportunity to learn about how to write a story full of suspense, crime and details that draw the reader’s attention. We learned how to insert essential elements that constitute a crime story, and we had the delight of hearing Katia Lief’s advice on how to write books. It was invaluable to learn how details serve as the catcher of attention and how the first page can determine whether a reader will be engaged to continue—or not.
What we usually think of when we hear “crime fiction” is a story in which the bad man kills the good woman, and an investigator who seems to always be misled by clues tries to fully find out what has happened. We usually have several suspects and there are some cliche situations, such as the suspect leaving an object behind, phones stopping to work suddenly, and detectives trying to “follow their own way,” ignoring the given rules. But, in order to make a story interesting and different from the others, we need to come up with different plots!
Using the elements of crime fiction in an unusual way can make a story stand out. For instance, try to create a different setting. Write about a crime scene somewhere unpredictable, like on an airplane or during a football game. Mislead the reader into believing the wrong suspect is the killer and surprise them with the truth. The killer could be the investigator himself who is trying to point the case in the wrong direction. Pay attention to whether it makes sense, though—the killer cannot be the elderly neighbor who knitted throughout the story! Using creativity to write a story in an unexpected will make you stand out and write a unique piece.
However, a story will most likely not draw the reader’s attention if the first chapter doesn’t establish a clear and curious setting. At the workshop, Katia Lief gave useful advice on how to write a crime story that leaves the reader eager to turn to the next page and continue reading. The “first page challenge” is a way to jumpstart your story in the very first page: it should have a different opening that causes the reader to wonder what’s going to happen next. For example, don’t start with a character describing the setting/scene. Instead, you should use vivid imagery to capture the character’s personality and actions.
As Katia suggested, you should be able to establish context, character and conflict in the first chapter, so that the reader has reasons to keep on reading. Think about what draws your attention when you read a book. Is it the advanced vocabulary? Probably not. We generally get addicted to a book that provides us right away with great insights about the story. A great way to try this out is to write a story no longer than one page in which a character is well portrayed and the event is so interesting that a reader would flip the page and continue if there were more.
Giving reasons for readers to be interested in the plot is the key to a successful story. But how to really write it? How to apply what was taught to write a story away? Well, as we learned at the October workshop, the most efficient way to write effectively is to practice, practice and practice. Don’t wait for inspiration to come; instead, use discipline and dedication to write until you feel as though inspiration has arrived. Challenge yourself by changing points of view and tones; if you always write through the victim’s perspective, try to narrate the story as the killer. Remember, readers are always seeking unique stories and writing styles. If your story starts with a first page or chapter that leaves the reader wondering what’s going to happen next, you mastered the challenge!