28 October 2014

Why do you write Crime Fiction?

Friday afternoons drag. If you work in an office, it can feel like the devil has planted one of his hooves down on the minute hand of the clock, slowing down time to the point where it starts to hurt. The happiness you felt earlier in the week has gone, the bright colors of life have faded, and all that remains is a seemingly endless, black and white, nothingness. Punctuated by the random antics of work colleagues, who are even more insane than you are (miniature remote-controlled helicopter racing, anyone?). Friday afternoons are a good time to start thinking about the next SleuthSayers article.

And then Friend K asks: Why do you write crime fiction? This is not a question I've been asked often; in fact, I can recall only one other instance. And I didn't really know how to answer it then, either. The short answer is: That's the way I evolved.

First of all, I actually think of myself as a mystery writer, not specifically a writer of crime fiction. I like mysteries, and at the heart of every story I've written you'll find one. It's a fundamental "human thing" to look for meaning in things we don't understand, to want to bring order to the chaos of life. Who, as a kid (and I mean everyone who's ever lived), hasn't looked to the stars at night and wondered what's out there? My foremost pleasure in writing a story is engaging the reader in a mystery; some kind of problem or enigma that needs/demands to be unraveled and solved. Seeking resolution is what makes readers keep turning the pages. I know it's why I do.
Danger! Conflict ahead! 
It's no surprise, then, that I grew up watching dozens of TV shows and movies about detectives and police officers. The mystery of who did it, how they did it, or why they did it, is central to any story in this arena; it's their raison d'ĂȘtre. I also grew up loving science fiction, because in Sci-Fi, the mystery can be as big as the universe. In fact, my favorite TV show of all is The Twilight Zone.

The thing I like about the Twilight Zone is that no matter how "out there" the stories were, they were mostly stories about real people. Rod Serling (the show's creator and principal writer) even said so. Setting stories in the "twilight zone" enabled him to explore almost anything about the human condition, that placed in a "realistic" or contemporary setting, he would never have gotten past the network censors or advertisers.

I don't write a lot of science fiction because I mostly prefer realistic settings and situations. I'm more interested in the girl hiding her dead boyfriend's body after she strangles him, rather than the girl who has three eyes and a luminous tail.

So, mysteries and stories about real people.
Picture a classroom in a suburban high school. The building is barely three years old and everything still has the feeling of the new and the modern about it: spacious, large windows, well lit. Teacher H is standing at the front of the room. She's middle-aged, has dark hair, glasses, and curious sense of humor. She's written "What makes a story work?" on the blackboard. It's English class, the last class before lunchtime on a Friday. The class is filled with a bunch of tired students, daydreaming about the weekend, their sandwiches, or the cute boy or girl seated in front of them.

This was a question that caught my attention and woke me up. And no one had an answer. No one put up his or her hand. No one had a clue, not even Student D, the cute girl who sat in front of me, in the front row -- the class Hermione, who usually had an answer for everything. In fact, she turned around to see if anyone else was putting up his/her hand. We traded vacant shrugs.

"Anyone?" Teacher H asked.


She defined story: The plot, or everything that happens in a book, or a movie, or a TV show.

Teacher H, by the way, was the teacher who entered class one morning and announced: "The king is dead". I was proud that I was the only one in the room who knew what she was talking about. It was the day Alfred Hitchcock died.

She wrote the answer on the blackboard. "Conflict". She explained. Stories work when people are in conflict with someone, something, or themselves. What makes a story work is conflict. She cited three examples from our reading that year:

  • Romeo and Juliet's happiness in their love is prevented by the conflict between their two families.
  • The conflict in The Importance of Being Earnest is the misunderstanding (lies and confusions) that exist between most of the characters.
  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus' decision to defend a man he believes to be innocent in a rape trial threatens his family's safety.

Teacher H summed it up: Conflict is a problem to be resolved. The conflict and its resolution ARE the story. A story about a man who wakes up on a nice sunny day, goes out and buys groceries, and then comes home again, is not going to be very interesting or memorable. Without conflict, there's nothing to be engaged with.

You don't forget teachers like that.

So, mysteries, realistic people in realistic situations, and conflict -- the evolution of my writing gained mass around the nucleus of these three core components.

There are, of course, degrees of conflict. A misunderstanding where a guy asks a girl on a casual date and she misinterprets his intentions is at one end of the conflict scale. A man murdering another man because he stole his girlfriend is at the other. The scale itself is one of life endangerment -- the higher the risk, the more extreme the conflict.
As a writer, I tend to lurk around the extreme end of the scale. Heightened conflict engages the reader (and me). I simply find it more interesting to write about people in deeply dramatic situations -- more often than not, that involves some kind of crime. Had I not been so inclined, I might have become a romance writer, or a writer of literary fiction.

I don't know if my scale of conflict (illustration above) actually holds any water, I only just made it up (on the day before you read this) so I haven't had time to really think about it. Feel free to shoot it full of holes.

Anyway, that's why I write crime fiction.

Be seeing you!



  1. Stephen, like you, I consider myself a mystery writer, not a crime writer. Your illustration of the degree of conflict is perfect! I think I'll have to "borrow" it, but, of course, I'll give you credit.
    There's a television channel here where TWILIGHT ZONE is still shown, and, of course, right now close to Halloween, several HITCHCOCK movies have been on lately.

  2. Great article, Stephen! I agree with Fran, the illustration is perfect. I think I might be more of a crime writer than mystery, but I am definitely a conflict writer.

  3. I think you summed it up quite well, Stephen, when you stated "Heightened conflict engages the reader."

    The mystery to me though is how you are able to conceive conflict with such a view at your locale as you have previously written about. (Probably 'focus, focus, focus'.)

  4. Great column, Stephen. I couldn't agree more--the more conflict and suspense, the better the story. And I love your scale.

    I've written in most genres: Western, mystery, SF, fantasy, even a few romance stories and horror stories--but I prefer mystery, and always will.

  5. Great column - conflict is the key. I think of myself more as a conflict writer, mainly because it's usually the human conflict that gets me cranked up rather than a specific criminal or mystery plot. (Which can be a problem, because I am weak at solving mysteries... Irony isn't always funny tasting water.)

  6. As a reader who likes mystery stories or crime stories, whatever you want to call them, I love your conflict illustration.

  7. Thank you, everybody! I shall continue to work on that Conflict Scale.

  8. My other early and remaining passion was sci-fi. But like you, I prefer the relative realism of mystery and I especially like the puzzles.

    Great graph… I agree.

  9. Stephen, I really apologize for chiming in so late.

    I too am quite taken by your graph, and have consequently been trying to determine locations of other genre works upon it.

    Sci-fi, it seems to me, also often ranks quite highly on the life endangerment scale, while certain sub-genres of Romance (such as Romantic Suspense, or some types of Gothic Romance that border on horror) might perhaps tend to slip the Romance scale slightly to the right of much -- if not most -- Literary Fiction (at least in the minds of those readers, I'd think).

    Certainly, however, some Lit. Fiction (such as Joyce Carol Oates’s “Equatorial” in my most recent copy of EQMM -- though perhaps an argument may be made that this story is, if not a mystery, at least Cross Genre) seem to nearly wallow in life endangerment.

    Further, while I agree with your general statement regarding the location of most mysteries, it also seems to me that many mysteries concern finding out who killed someone. That murder has already been committed, and sometimes (often?) no more murders are threatened. Consequently I wonder how much life endangerment figures into the conflict of such stories.

    Rereading your text, and comparing it to your excellent graph, I am wondering if you feel the locations marked on the graph, for certain genres, are more likely to fill broad areas (perhaps shading darker, or lighter, as that genre's tendency becomes more, or less, dense near certain nadirs) as apposed to each genre sitting pin-point-like upon the graph, as I at first interpreted things?

    Please understand that I'm not arguing against your graph, which I think is quite on target, but am instead trying to ascertain if I at first misinterpreted it and am now arriving at a more correct comprehension of its meaning.


  10. Dixon, yes, the graph is far from perfect and I'm treating as a work in progress. It makes no account for Gothic romance, and of course the likes of sci-fi and horror.

  11. Stephen, I hope you know I wasn't trying to denigrate your graph. I was simply so excited by it (and the concomitant realizations it inspired) that I found myself driven to consider how other genres might fit into it.

  12. Dixon, yes, I know. :)

    I plan to keep thinking about the graph and see how other genres might fit into it. The graph, as it stands, is fairly one dimensional. I think it might benefit from the addition of other elements (and certainly some more thought). I'll keep you posted.


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