Four Thoughts About Writing Modern Noir Fiction

Well, since I’m currently reading a modern noir novel (called “Sunburn” by Laura Lippman, which is set in the 1990s but was first published in 2018), I thought that I’d look at some of the ways that writers can use this genre in more modern settings.

After all, although classics of the genre like Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” and most of Raymond Chandler’s novels are all set in 1920s-50s America, the genre can work in a surprisingly large number of places and times.

So, here are some thoughts about writing modern noir fiction:

1) Writing style: This is one of the most important parts of the noir genre and one of the easiest ways to tell if a novel is “noir” or not.

In short, the writing style in a noir novel should be “matter of fact” and fast-paced. The thing to remember here is that the original hardboiled crime novels of the 1920s-50s were meant to be mass entertainment – they were the paperback thriller novels or action blockbusters of their day. And, because of this, the writing style usually tends to have a certain detachment and speed to it.

In other words, noir stories usually don’t tend to spend too long describing things (descriptive moments are usually only a few carefully-chosen words or a couple of sentences at most), with the focus being more on events and dialogue. Their writing style often also has a certain emotionless, understated and detached world-weariness to it, like a simple statement of events or a documentary film.

Yes, it is difficult to get this right without making your story’s narration sound boring (and this is where actually reading some of this type of fiction comes in handy, since you can see how other writers handle it). But it is one of the most essential, and timeless, qualities of the noir genre.

2) Characters and morality: Another important, and timeless, part of noir fiction are the characters. In short, most of the characters should have ulterior motives, realistic flaws/motivations and/or a certain level of moral ambiguity.

One of the major things that gives the noir genre its famous atmosphere is the feeling of stepping into a murky, complex world that is a far cry from the more simplistic “good and evil” worlds of many stories. Of reading a story set in a more “realistic” world where people aren’t perfect.

This unflinching and realistic exploration of human nature is something that works well in almost any time or setting. Focusing on moral ambiguity also adds a lot of atmosphere to your story for the simple reason that your reader has almost certainly grown up on more traditional and moralistic “good and evil” stories, so they will be worried about what will happen to the main characters. In other words, it adds extra suspense to the story for the simple reason that the reader has no clue whether there will be any poetic justice or not.

For example, the main character in Mickey Spillane’s 1947 novel “I, The Jury” is a private detective who wants violent revenge against whoever killed his friend. In the 1984 film noir “Blood Simple“, the most sympathetic character (Abby) is having an affair with a guy who works for her dodgy boyfriend. In the 1982 sci-fi film noir masterpiece “Blade Runner“, the main detective (Deckard) is actually more of a villain than the people he is trying to catch. I’m sure you get the idea.

In pretty much every noir novel or film, even more traditional detective-based ones, no character will be entirely “good” or “evil”. And it is the characters, or more importantly, their imperfections – that should drive your story’s plot.

3) Suspense and violence: Although traditional hardboiled “noir” fiction was a precursor to the modern thriller genre, the important thing to remember when writing a modern noir story is that your story should be compelling because of suspense and not because of fast-paced action violence.

Although the modern noir genre can certainly be fairly violent, brutal and horrific (watch “Blood Simple” and read Jack O’ Connell’s 1998 novel “Word Made Flesh” for two unflinchingly grim examples of this), this isn’t usually presented in the thrilling and sanitised way it might be in a modern action-thriller novel. Instead, it is usually the grim result of lots of suspense and – realistically – it usually has serious consequences of one kind or another too.

In other words, noir stories emphatically don’t glamourise violence and will often be more about the fear of impending violence (so, they’re a bit closer to the horror genre) than anything else. This suspenseful feeling of impending doom is one of the key parts of the noir genre and, even in more non-violent stories, it is an important thing to remember. The reader needs to feel “this probably won’t end well” fairly early in the story. There needs to be a sense of tension, claustrophobia and/or dread lurking in the background throughout the story.

For example, although I’ve only read about a third of Laura Lippman’s “Sunburn” at the time of writing, it is a novel where the main characters are either hiding from people, running from people or spying on people. And it is incredibly suspenseful as a result. Add to this the fact that most of the earlier parts of the novel all take place in one small, claustrophobic rural town and – even though it is a million miles away from the trilby-wearing chain-smoking gumshoes of traditional noir fiction/film, it still feels very much like something from the noir genre.

4) Settings: Although noir stories can be set anywhere, there are a few things to remember when creating settings for modern noir fiction. Not only do your settings have to feel run-down and lived-in (to add atmosphere and realism to the story) but they must also seem hostile in some way or another. Again, this has to do with the fact that the noir genre relies heavily on suspense and one of the best ways to add suspense is to put your characters somewhere where they aren’t safe.

Traditionally, this usually means that noir stories either take place in large, impersonal crime-ridden cities or in claustrophobic and hopeless small towns. Although it is probably possible to set a noir story somewhere other than this, the important thing is that the location not only has to feel “realistic” (even the futuristic city in “Blade Runner” deliberately looks old and lived-in), but it should be somewhere that feels unsafe in some way or another.

Again, the noir genre actually has slightly more in common with the horror genre than the thriller genre in this respect.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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