Writing a noire novel is challenging. You want to convey a dark, mysterious vibe to your reader, introduce broken, but likeable characters and tell a brilliant, twisting story, but you’re not sure how to tie all that together. Believe me when I say it can be easy, easy to convey that foreboding feeling and thrilling story. You need only keep a few things in mind; nine to be specific.
1. Write in the First Person
I have discussed the advantages of First Person many times before and I will again, especially for a genre of writing such as this!
Writing in the first person helps place the reader in the character’s shoes. Your mind subconsciously emphasises more with a character that is referred to with ‘I’ throughout a story. It helps even more so if the character is relatable, as this further increases the bond between main character and reader.
In addition, it makes the scenes in a novel such as this more thrilling. Your character is encountering many shady sorts and experiencing many dangerous situations. It goes without saying that using the first person will help immerse your reader in the dark world of noire!
2. Make a Mystery
Noire is famous for its murder mysteries.
Someone wants somebody dead and inevitably they succeed. It could have been murder for love, or for greed, or revenge. Ultimately, someone gives into their weaker side and does the deed. Of course, one can even be sympathetic of a killer, but you can also make them truly evil, turning them into an elusive, terrifying murderer.
Or, you could have no murder at all.
Tell a story of crime, such as the stealing of something valuable, perhaps have the criminal frame someone for it. Have some plan executed by a criminal and then let the sheer brilliance of the main character sort through clues and solve the mystery. noire works perfectly with mystery, even dark crime stories, which is what made the genre so popular.
Make a mystery and you have the foundation of a great noire story.
3. Show the Nightlife
Typically, in noire, many scenes are set at night. Afterall, noire means black, dark. Most of the action will happen at night. In seedy bars, shady restaurants, abandoned warehouses where dodgy deals are made. In all these places you can picture characters stepping out from the shadows.
If you want to make it brighter, make it busier, not lighter. Neon signs and clubs, let your characters encounter it all, as it is around this time that the antagonists are out and about, leaving a trail for the protagonist to follow.
An important part of noire is the world building.
If you are working to immerse your reader, you need to immerse them in the right world. Nothing is less noire than the country-side in the middle of the day. Show the nightlife and you show them noire.
4. Make it a City Setting
Speaking of country-side, the polar opposite is ideal for a noire setting.
‘The concrete jungle’ is a phrase often tossed around in noire. The jungle where everyone fights to survive, but not with tooth and nail. Nothing is meaner than city streets, walked by the average pedestrian, who if thrown into the right situation, could become a killer. It all happens in the city, the good and the bad, but more often than not, it’s just bad.
One can easily create a noire in a city, is ideal. That is not to say you can’t write one set in a small town, crime happens everywhere, but in the city, where anyone could be a suspect with the right connections, it has the ambience of danger. It is easier to tell if you are being watched in a small town, but not in a city.
In a city, there are eyes everywhere, ears everywhere and everyone can be bought. With that in mind, it is no wonder cities like Boston and New York are famed for their noire stories. Nothing matches that feeling more than a city-setting, keep that in mind.
5. Go Down Dark Alleys
Alleyways, about the only place in a city where the most important scenes happen.
It is in the dark alleys that the unsavoury types attack the helpless, making them the most foreboding place to be in a noire novel. A car could easily park there, out of sight of the police or an assailant can hide in a dark corner behind a dumpster, waiting to strike.
Alleyways also make for great fight areas. Be it with good ol’ fists or knives, they are secluded enough that passersby won’t notice if someone takes sharp steel between the rips or stiff right-hook to the jaw. Keep in mind, you might end up using ‘alley’ or ‘alleyway’ a lot if you’re writing a noire for the first time, so be sure to watch you don’t overdo it.
I’m speaking from experience on this one too.
6. Use a Anti-Hero/Detective/Broken Protagonist
And now the protagonist!
Nobody in a noire is perfect. Everyone has their problems, their vices, their weaknesses. It is a common trope in noire for the protagonist to be a tough detective with a dark backstory, but a heart of gold. The reason it is so popular is because these characters are so enjoyable to read and root for.
A perfect character is boring, a sarcastic character is boring. In noire, your protagonist needs to have questionable moments, perhaps many of them, but they have to be believable enough, as well as likeable enough, for the reader to enjoy them. You are going to write troubled, imperfect people, with their one problems and reasons for doing what they are doing.
You will need to stress these differences!
Your protagonist is the most important character to focus on in a noire. You are telling the story of a normal person, as troubled as they are, finding good in themselves and showing persistence in pursuing the antagonist. It need not be a detective, or even a cop, but a protagonist has to have a sense of justice. The protagonist needs to have a reason to fight.
Be it for themselves, for others or simply to punish the antagonist, they need to be a light to the darkness, even if it’s a dim light.
7. Use Love and Betrayal
Love interests in a noire is pretty common as well.
A charming character introduces themself to the protagonist, immediately giving the reader a sense of if they can be trusted or not. Veteran readers know that if the character is good, not to mention likeable, they become a weakness for the protagonist. Although a necessary one, as they represent the good in the main character.
Whereas a character who isn’t trustworthy might stab the protagonist in the back in favour of the antagonist. Or perhaps, the love interest truly grows fond of the protagonist and ends up becoming the first character. As predictable as these subplots are, they are crucial for imagery in a noire novel. Be it a solemn reminder that you can’t trust everyone, or that there is good in the world.
Or perhaps it’s fling, in which case, don’t think much about it.
8. Let There be a Clash of Minds
An unintelligent protagonist or antagonist doesn’t make for an interesting noire novel.
As amusing as it might be to make a character who simply glides through the novel on dumb luck, it is far more investing to have a character that understands the situation and has the brain power to overcome it. After all, a chase wouldn’t be so thrilling if one didn’t know how to run.
Making an intelligent villain is easy. Put yourself in their shoes, give them your understanding and more of the world. Have them plan, plot and execute. Have them cover their tracks as best as they can, but leave room for error. Error that is human, but not stupid.
Next, create a protagonist who can put two-and-two together. Have them see the clues, understand them, or misunderstand them in the beginning. Have them learn and discover as they encounter more crime scenes and interesting characters. Have them do all this until they have a lightbulb moment, then have them confront the antagonist in a showdown of your choosing.
It can be wits, it can be might, or even both, but let the reader know that your characters are intelligent. If they are going to be silly characters, then it’s more comedy than noire, therefore requiring a different plot structure altogether.
9. Write a Bitter End
Finally, the bitter end.
Not every story ends happily, sometimes this is for the best. Whether you have to give in to realism or you want a punchy ending to sum up a message, sometimes the protagonist has to lose as much as they win.
Perhaps they lose someone close to them, perhaps they go down as a criminal, perhaps they sacrifice themselves for the greater good, to be remembered, but ultimately forgotten.
Perhaps the criminal wins.
Your ending needs to have a powerful message. It doesn’t have to be an original one, just powerful. Now, you need not write a bitter end, it can end happily, but if you want that dark, gritty noire novel to have weight to it, you can’t end it like a fairy tale. It doesn’t give your book justice, the world you created justice.
I recommend pondering the end before you ponder the beginning. Keep the rest of these tips in mind and you should have no problem writing your noire novel.
Good day, goodnight and as always…
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Matthew Dewey, Writer
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