Today marks the 75th anniversary of film legend Billy Wilder’s noir crime masterpiece Double Indemnity. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards following its release and inspired the wave of crime fiction that followed in its wake.
So what does it take to craft a good crime story? What defines “noir”, and how do you tell a story that’s fresh and exciting while adhering to the basic themes of the genre that made these classic films legendary? Our Conference has played host to some of today’s best crime fiction and neo-noir writers and we’re looking to them for some advice on writing a modern crime story that hits home.
Here are seven tips for writing crime fiction from the genre’s leading writers of today:
1. PLAY WITH THE CONVENTIONS OF THE GENRE
We’re at this point where we’ve all seen so much of crime fiction in so many different forms growing up. We are all so familiar with the conventions of it…and I think that as a storyteller, it presents a tremendous opportunity because when you subvert those conventions, when you play to them, when you play against them, when you’re in very direct dialogue with the very knowledgeable audience, I find that really just full of all this potential of creating a lot of tension and a lot of interesting sparks.
-Rian Johnson (writer/director Looper, Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Knives Out 2019) at AFF 2013
2. START WITH A PICTURE AND COLOR IN THE DIALOGUE
I often try to just think of the whole thing, the whole scene, all the information as if I couldn’t use words. What would the pictures be? What would I need to show to tell that story if nobody said a word? And then I use the words to reveal…what is the character trying to hide from themselves? What is the character trying to hide from someone else? What is it that they want that they just don’t want to come out and say that they want?…and I use the dialogue to kind of paint and fill that in.
-Callie Khouri (writer Thelma & Louise) at AFF 2013
3. USE YOUR SETTING AS A TOOL
Setting a scene is a great place to also tell story. It’s where you convey tone, and…if you look at setting the scene as just another form of bland exposition, that’s real estate in your script that’s being wasted. It all accrues to the voice of the piece, to the tone, to character, to everything.
-Scott Frank (writer Dead Again, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Minority Report, Logan; writer/director The Lookout, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Godless) at AFF 2017
4. FOCUS ON YOUR CHARACTERS’ MOTIVATIONS
You’ve got the great thing of character motive, so everybody’s got a motive that’s going against everybody else…and it creates a lot of friction. It’s a genre that won’t get old, even if you do it in a pretty traditional way because it actually is about character…people just like the friction that comes from every single person having their own secret plan about how they want to do things.
-Peter Craig (writer The Town, Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts I & II, 12 Strong, Top Gun: Maverick 2019; writer/producer Blood Father; novelist) at AFF 2013
5. FIND THE HEART OF THE GENRE
There’s an honesty ultimately to noir, which says, “You know what? To hell with the romanticized version. Let’s rip it open and see into the raw, true story”…and that’s the trick of noir. You think you’re getting the honest dissection of everything we’ve come to just so cavalierly believe in as a romantic, but actually, at the base of all that, turmoil and panic is its own form of romance.
-Brian Helgeland (writer/director Legend, 42, A Knight’s Tale, Payback; writer L.A Confidential, Man on Fire, The Taking of Pelham 123, Conspiracy Theory, Green Zone, Blood Work, Mystic River) at AFF 2013
6. ALLOW FOR MOMENTS OF LAUGHTER
It got a laugh in the room, but it’s a film noir. It’s a film noir about murder and betrayal, and these little touches of humor are part of life. Too often, I think, people doing drama think that comedy will ruin it, but it won’t. It’ll enhance it. When we exhale like that, then we get back a moment later, we get back into the tension of the situation.
– David Misch (writer/producer Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man, Mork & Mindy, The Muppets Take Manhattan) at AFF 2016
7. GIVE YOUR HERO CONVICTION—AND THEN CHALLENGE IT
That, to me, is an essential part of this type of writing, whether it’s a detective story or just a noir, per se, is that there’s someone in the midst of all this nonsense who has a conviction and is desperately trying to uphold or justify something…you want to have that conviction, but you’re always on the edge of lapsing into just abandoning everything you believe, and holding onto everything you believe at the edge of that precipice, where it’s so tempting and so easy to spill over into disbelief and dissolution.
-Shane Black (writer/director The Predator, The Nice Guys, Iron Man 3, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; writer Lethal Weapon, Last Action Hero) at AFF 2013
Want to hear more on the genius of Wilder’s films? Check out our On Story episode Deconstructing Billy Wilder at onstory.tv
You can learn more tips like these at this year’s Writers Conference (Oct. 24 – 27, 2019) where the leading voices of film and television will come together for a weekend of networking and writing advice. For more information on how to attend, click here.