Writing Tips: Who Needs Rules to Write?

Writing Tips: Who Needs Rules to Write?

“There are three rules for writing a novel,” W. Somerset Maugham once quipped. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Anyone who’s set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) knows this to be true. However, that’s never stopped members of the literati from offering advice in the form of “rules” to writers of crime fiction.

In 1841, with the publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Edgar Allan Poe launched the detective fiction genre and established what is known as “Poe’s Five Rules of Detective Fiction”:

  1. There must be a crime, preferably murder, because it fascinates readers more than any other crime and there appears to be an unlimited number of ways in which people can die.
  2. There must be a detective, someone with superior inductive and deductive reasoning who is capable of solving the crime that baffles the official police system.
  3. The police must be seen as either incompetent or as incapable of solving a certain type of complex crime.
  4. The reader must be given all the information, or clues, to be able to solve the crime if those clues are properly interpreted.
  5. The detective must explain who the criminal is and the motive, means, and opportunity by the conclusion of the story.

It’s interesting to consider works of crime fiction, past and present—both literary and cinematic presentations—and discover that most honor Poe’s list, give or take a rule or two. When we think of literary adages that have withstood the test of time, the final lines of Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” stands out: “…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man.” You know the passage. You’ve read it before. You’ve probably even recited it to someone. I would argue, though, that given the state of the contemporary crime-fiction novel where sleuths are more diverse and complex than ever, Poe’s rules are more relevant than Chandler’s musings.

Following Poe, in 1928 S.S. Van Dine offered his “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” in the American Magazine. His advice includes, “There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better” (rule 7) and compared the genre to “a sporting event.” I can’t imagine what Poe would have thought of Van Dine’s flippant portrayal of the genre. Several decades later, as part of the New York Times “Writers on Writing” series in 2001, Elmore Leonard wrote “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle,” his own list of ten rules that any writer is smart to follow. Where Van Dine is didactic and antiquated, Leonard is helpful and offers gems for contemplation.

However, for the contemporary writer of crime fiction and modern-day readers, Raymond Chandler’s “Ten Commandments For the Detective Novel” remains helpful, interesting, and, like all of Chandler’s work, sparse enough to offer writers room to maneuver within his list and readers leeway to argue for or against the merits of any contemporary favorite.

  1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
  2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
  3. It must be realistic in character, setting, and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
  4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
  5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
  6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
  7. The solution must seem inevitable, once revealed.
  8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
  9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law… If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
  10. It must be honest with the reader.
Writing Tips: Who Needs Rules to Write?

Like everything Chandler wrote, this list is direct, thoughtful, and provides excellent fodder, most of it pertaining to plot and authorial credibility. Which rules still hold up? Take the last novel you read and see. I’d argue that most rules will apply. It’s an interesting list to view as an author. Admittedly, I have sinned against some of Chandler’s commandments in my own works, but I like to think of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, which, novel after novel, seems to uphold these commandments with the dedication of Mother Teresa.

In the end, what are we to make of lists and rules? Some argue rules only hold a genre back, imposing unnecessary (and/or antiquated) limitations to what the genre can achieve. Parker, after all, insisted he didn’t write genre fiction and listed The Great Gatsby as the greatest crime novel. I say that where excellent literary criticism has the power to make a text more accessible for a larger reader base, our genre’s lists and rules challenge us as readers and writers to examine works more closely while asking our best authors to at once write within these boundaries—and to also stretch them to new limits.

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John R. Corrigan has published nine crime novels under his own name as well as the pseudonyms K.A. Delaney and D.A. Keeley. His most recent work, Destiny’s Pawn, will be published in June 2016. He is English department chair at Northfield Mount Hermon School and writes a biweekly post for Type M for Murder.

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