Since I write these articles quite far in advance, I was busy writing last year’s “film noir” Christmas stories at the time of writing this article. However, although I’ve obviously seen and read a few things in the noir genre, I would hardly call myself an expert on it. Still, one of the most difficult things to get right if you aren’t an expert on the noir genre is the narrative style used in many things in this genre.
So, here are a few quick tips for faking “film noir”-style narration in your stories:
1) Less is more: Simply put, film noir narration doesn’t actually have to be that different from ordinary narration. If you go overboard with clichéd “film noir” narration, then it will come across as obviously fake pretty quickly.
So, just write ordinary narration – with the occasional use of short sentences, pithy metaphors and/or drily amusing observations. The thing to remember about hardboiled narration is that it wasn’t originally meant to be a stylish fashion statement. It was meant to be an engaging style of writing that was quick to read and quick to write – after all, a lot of old stories in the noir genre were published in monthly magazines for a mass audience.
As long as the content of your story (eg: private investigators, crime, gloomy lighting etc..) fits into the noir genre, then you can get away with using ordinary narration that just includes a few cleverly-chosen noir features. But, remember, less is more.
2) Keep it simple (but not too simple): Following on from the “ordinary” thing I mentioned earlier, one of the easiest ways to fake “film noir” narration is just to make your narration sound a little bit like ordinary speech. In other words, there should be the occasional long word or complex sentence when necessary, but the prose shouldn’t just be elaborate for the sake of elaborate.
In other words, keep it simple. But not too simple. Once again, remember that noir stories were originally meant to be popular entertainment for a mass audience. They weren’t meant to be books for children or books for highly-educated literary critics. So, if you go to either extreme, then you’re missing the point.
Basically, just look at one of the noir genre’s modern equivalents – ordinary thriller novels – if you need examples of this happy medium between sophistication and simplicity. An author who provides a good example of this writing style is probably Lee Child. He writes in a fairly hardboiled and “matter of fact” style, without actually writing stories in the noir genre.
3) Small details: One of the easiest ways to give your narration more of a “film noir” quality is to include a few mildly unusual small details. These should be things that are slightly unusual, but could realistically be expected to be seen in everyday life. Generally, things that seem like kitsch or ephemera tend to work best for this.
For example, the second story in my Christmas collection last year includes this descriptive segment: ‘My eyes rested on the ornate marble finish pen that took pride of place on my desk. After I’d filed off the “Ebenezer’s Floor Tiles” e-mail address on the side, it actually looked like I’d paid good money for it.‘
Don’t ask me why, but this sort of thing tends to create a wonderfully noirish atmosphere. So, focus on mildly unusual everyday details occasionally and this will help to give your story slightly more of a “film noir” quality.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂