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.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Rambling Thoughts About Making “Film Noir”-Style Art

Well, at the time of writing, I seem to be going through a bit of a “film noir” phase with my daily artwork. So, although I’ve sort of talked about this subject before (such as this article about pulp fiction covers), I thought that I’d return to it again. But, first, here’s a preview of one of my upcoming “film noir” drawings:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size drawing will be posted here tomorrow.

So, here are some rambling thoughts about making “film noir” art:

1) Visual storytelling: Simply put, good film noir art often tells a story of some kind. Even if it’s just a picture of a detective with a trilby hat, a trenchcoat and a revolver posing theatrically, then it still implies some kind of action or backstory.

The thing to remember about the noir genre is that, apparently, films in this genre used to just be called “melodramas” at the time they were released. In other words, they were films about dramatic events, dramatic actions and emotional drama.

You can also see a lot of these elements “turned up to eleven” if you look at old 1930s-50s pulp novel covers – if you ignore the sleazier examples of this type of art, then most old pulp novel covers tend to feature melodramatic scenes of people firing guns, bursting through doors, lurking ominously etc… If there’s one word (other than “garish” or “lurid”) that describes old pulp novel covers, it is action.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that your film noir artwork has to be particularly violent – but it should hint at some kind of story. Think of it as if your painting or drawing was a single frame taken from a longer scene in a film.

2) Source material:
Although I’m fascinated by the noir genre, I haven’t actually seen that many “proper” film noirs. In fact, the only “authentic” film noir I can remember seeing is probably the Bogart/Bacall adaptation of “The Big Sleep”. Even when looking online for second-hand DVDs of films in this genre, I was surprised at how (relatively) expensive they were considering their age. So, I haven’t actually seen much of the original source material.

However, of course, I’ve seen lots of things that are inspired by film noir. In fact, my favourite film – “Blade Runner” – is basically just a sci-fi film noir. This film has been an absolutely huge influence on my art and my artistic tastes, so I’ve absorbed quite a few “film noir”-style techniques “second hand” from this film. The same is true for all of the film noir parodies, pastiches, TV show episodes etc… that I’ve seen over the years.

What was the point of mentioning all of this? Simply put, it’s ok to learn most of what you know about the genre from second-hand sources. Yes, it probably isn’t perfect. But, by having a unique mixture of inspirations that have been inspired by film noir, your work will be much more likely to be a more unique interpretation of the genre.

3) Lighting: Simply put, the term “film noir” is French for “black film”. One key feature in a lot of film noir style art is the emphasis on darkness and high-contrast lighting. Of course, this style of lighting is nothing new – I mean, artists like Caravaggio were using it centuries ago – but it is something that is worth remembering when making film noir style art.

A good general rule for this (which works for lots of other types of art too) is to ensure that at least 30-50% of the total surface area of your drawing or painting is covered with either black ink or black paint.

This makes the lighting and colours appear brighter and more dramatic by comparison. Here’s an example of the technique in some of my non-film noir pieces of art:

“And Once A Palace” By C. A. Brown

“Derelict Sector” By C. A. Brown

“Scaffolding” By C. A. Brown

4) Monochrome or greyscale?: This is a bit of a tricky question since, although you can make film noir art in colour, it generally tends to look better if it is in monochrome (eg: containing no other colours than black and white) or greyscale (which includes black, white and grey).

Of course, the decision whether to use monochrome or greyscale is up to you. Generally speaking, greyscale tends to give your art more of a “cinematic” look and can also be useful for more subtle lighting. Monochrome, on the other hand, is perfect for harsh lighting and/or more stylised comic-book style art.

Both types of art have their merits and downsides, but if you’re new to making this type of art, then greyscale is easier to get right. Not to mention that, if you want to hedge your bets, you can always make your art in colour – then scan or digitally photograph it – and then remove the colours digitally.

To do this, just make another digital copy of your picture (so that you have a backup), open it in pretty much any image editing program. Then look for an option in your program’s “colours” menu called “hue/saturation” or “hue/saturation/lightness”. Once you’ve found it, then just reduce the saturation level to zero and… hey presto! ….greyscale art!


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why The Noir Genre Is So Interesting ( If You’re An Artist)


[Edit: D’oh! I’ve just realised that I posted an almost identical article about this subject in February *facepalm*. Even so, this stuff is worth repeating.]

The night before I wrote this article, I watched the first episode of a dystopian alternate history drama called “SS-GB“. One of the things that I thought whilst watching was “Wow! Some parts of this look a bit like ‘Blade Runner‘. I love the lighting, the costumes etc..” It was then that I remembered that the only thing that these two things have in common is that they were both heavily inspired by the film noir genre.

So, I thought that I’d look at some of the really cool artistic features of this genre and why it’s worth checking out if you’re an artist. There are too many to list here, but here are three of them:

1) Lighting is everything: One of the cool things about the noir genre is it’s heavy emphasis on lighting. The term “film noir” literally translates to “black film” and gloomy darkness is a central feature of the genre. All of this gloom makes the lighting stand out a lot more than usual.

In other words, it’s a genre that allows you to play around with the lighting. You have to think carefully about the light sources in your artwork and place them in such a way that they highlight the important parts of the painting, cast dramatic shadows etc… whilst still ensuring that the painting still contains enough darkness to contrast with the light.

Likewise, if you’re blending the noir genre with the sci-fi genre, then you can also give your artwork a “futuristic” look by using different colours of light (just make sure that they’re complementary colours). Like in this heavily digitally-edited painting of mine from last year which uses red, green and blue lighting:

"City Of Towers" By C. A. Brown

“City Of Towers” By C. A. Brown

Another good thing about film noir lighting is that it’s also the perfect thing to use if you’re making art in a hurry too. Since a good piece of noir art should contain as much (or more) darkness than light, it usually means that you only have to add detail to 30%-70% of the total area of your painting, like in this painting of mine that will be posted here in December:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will appear here on the 5th December.

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will appear here on the 5th December.

As you can see, about 50-60% of this painting consists of nothing more than black paint. So, atmospheric film noir lighting can also be a great way to save time too.

2) Visual Storytelling: Another cool thing about the film noir genre is that, because it started with detective and thriller films (and things like hardboiled detective novels, crime comics etc..), there’s a lot more emphasis on visual storytelling. In order to create an interesting-looking piece of film noir art, you pretty much have to hint at some kind of story in your artwork.

This is probably also one reason why noir-influenced art tends to turn up in comics quite a bit too. It’s a style that is designed for intrigue, mystery and melodrama. After all, virtually every early work in the noir genre had to tell an intriguing story of some kind. So, storytelling is a huge part of the genre.

This emphasis on storytelling also extends to the interesting range of perspectives and compositions used in the genre. For example, one instant way to add a suspenseful “noir” look to your artwork is simply to tilt everything in the picture by 30-45 degrees. Like in this cyberpunk/noir sci-fi painting of mine:

"Midnight Centre" By C. A. Brown

“Midnight Centre” By C. A. Brown

3) Fashion, minimalism and location design: One of the cool thing about the film noir genre is it’s emphasis on fashion and style. Because the genre evolved during a time when fashions were more formal, the genre tends to look a bit “unrealistic” in a visually interesting way.

Plus, since this is contrasted with the minimalist simplicity of many vintage fashions – eg: dark trenchcoats, sleek black dresses, three-piece suits, pencil skirts etc.. it can give noir artwork an almost timeless look too. I mean, it’s one reason why the noir genre can be so easily combined with the sci-fi genre – like in this old sci-fi painting of mine from 2015:

"Data Tower" By C. A. Brown [2015]

“Data Tower” By C. A. Brown [2015]

In addition to this, the location design in the noir genre is quite interesting. In older works in the noir genre, locations just tended to be fairly “realistic” and slightly minimalist.

But, in more modern interpretations of the genre, there tends to be more of an emphasis on locations that are intriguingly cluttered with lots of fascinatingly mysterious objects. This can be a great way to hint at a larger story or to create a location that seems both cosy and creepy at the same time. Like in this painting which will appear here later this month:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will appear here on the 17th November.

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will appear here on the 17th November.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂