My 'suggestions' on how to write good hardboiled/noir.

Yesterday on my blog I followed up a guest blog from Joyce Juzwik (fellow Crimespace critter) on her ten rules concerning writing.  Seems like everyone has rules these days.  I decided I'll just offier suggesions. 


So, as per I.J.'s request, here is what I wrote.


Yesterday a good friend, Joyce Juzwik, wrote a guest blog in here concerning the ten 'rules' a writer had to observe in order to write hardboiled or noir fiction. If you read the blog you had to notice Joyce had some clear objections to the rules. I did too.

Hard clad 'rules' are always made to be broken. Along comes that unusually gifted and talented writer, and 'rules' go out the window. I, for one, would never be so presumptious as to set down a set of rules for writers to follow. One reason being that, hey . . . how many readers have heard of my illustrious name? (answer--maybe my wife; a couple of good friends. And bill collectors. That's it, buddy!)

But if I may, let me offer a few 'suggestions.'

One: Don't be afraid to write. Write every day. Experiment. Play with words. Make a fool of yourself. Sooner or later it'll start to make sense. To click. And voila! You've found a style you can call all your own.

Two:Related to the above somewhat, don't be afraid to out-and-out copy the masters. You gotta start somewhere, so starting out writing a story that sounds like Earl Derr Biggers (the creator of Charlie Chan)or any writer you admire,
can't be all bad. Just remember, though--the goal is not to become a second Earl Derr Biggers but to begin the process of finding your own road to travel down.

Three:Make the opening chapter, the opening two pages, absolutely mind-boggling. The goal is to capture the reader's interest and never let'em go. Do it immediately. And keep building on it all the way to the end.

Four: Yes indeedy--introduce the killer(s) as early as you can in the story. But disguise them. Throw them into a gaggle of other geese who, each one of them, have just as much a reason to be the bad guy as the next schmuck.

Five: Don't be afraid of sub plots. Sub plots that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the main plot. But make them key on some trait of the hero/bad guy. Making the hero/bad guy more of a complex character helps keep the reader's interest keyed up. Subplots are built for that.

Six: Pay attention to dialogue. Make it sound as real as possible. But for god's sakes . . don're rely on dialogue to carry the entire novel down the road without other foils to help out. A novel with nothing but dialogue is about as worthless as an empty beer keg. And just as depressing.

Seven: If you're thinking about writing a series (and aren't we all?) pay attention in writing the last chapter. The last few pages. Wrap up the action--but don't make it 'final,' if you get my drift.

Eight:Finally, whenever you find someone who wants to give you a set of rules on how to write, turn around and run like hell in the OPPOSITE direction. Following'rules' is the best way in the world to stiffle creativity. Hell, we have lit agents and book reviewers for that task. Let's not deprive them of their miserly little pleasures in life.

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Okay, #s 1 and 2 apply to all writing. As for writing hardboiled/noir, I agree with #3: the opening better be a grabber. Partly agree w/#4. Introduce the killer early, but if you write thrillers, as I do, no need to hide or disguise him/her. My latest (pub date June 2011) begins in the killer POV. #5 subplots are okay, but I think it's best if they relate in some way to the main plot. #6: dialogue is very important and it better sound good to your inner ear and feel authentic to the reader (relative the person speaking). As for a novel with only dialogue?  Have you read The Friends of Eddy Coyle, by that absolute master of dialogue George V. Higgins?  if not, BUY IT NOW! It's a fabulous lesson in how to craft a novel with great characters in an economical way. #7: if you're thinking about a series, you'd better pay a lot of attention to your protagonist/series character and make him/her an utterly fascinating person.  And #8, in the words of my series protagonist New Orleans Homicide Detective Frank Renzi ... FTR    F*** the rules.

Susan--I agree 100% with what you said about The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. It's a true classic, and one of my top 5 favorite noir novels of all time. The dialogue took up maybe 80% of the entire novel and propelled the story all by itself.


However, George V Higgins tried (way too hard, some say) to recapture that magic in subsequent novels by using the same all-dialogue-all-the-time technique, and failed miserably. I'd have to agree with BR on this one, that dialogue should only be part of the mix, with narrative and description playing key roles.

I agree with your comment re Higgins' later novels ... none captured the magic of "Friends." Also agree that most novelists couldn't get away with that much dialogue.  Elmore Leonard does pretty well though.  On another topic, related to hardboiled, if you're a fan of Hammett and Chandler, check out Shortcut Man by p.g. sturges. He's the son of Hollywood director of same name. I'm halfway through it ... parts are hilarious, but this is definitely a gritty book ... not for the squeamish or priggish.  link below is to amazon page

Shortcut Man

Susan---interesting.  I can see a difference in POV between writers on that point.


Minerva--liked 9 and 10 in your list of rules.

Great post, BR. I wouldn't call them rules, either. But they are great ideas, especially numbers 1-3, and should be considered by everyone writing in the hardboiled/noir subgenres.


My favorite quote is from W Somerset Maugham, who said, "There are only three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."


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