Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Crime Is King," Says The New Guy

By Chuck Wendig

“I’ve got to go and kill a man,” Jay Stringer said in that accent of his (what is it? French? I don’t even know). He thumbed bullets into a rusty snubnose.

“Cool,” I said, just glad he wasn’t going to kill me. I’ve seen what he can do. I’ve seen how his enemies fared. Missing fingers. Lips burned to a char with cheap cigarette lighters. Chair legs shoved in various orifices, some new, some standard.

“I need you to handle some business while I’m gone.”

“Whatever you need, String.”

“You need to right some wrongs. Steer the ship straight.”

I wasn’t following.

He continued: “It’s Do Some Damage, man. It’s Weddle. It’s always goddamn Weddle. He gets drunk on his fruity drinks and then posts about Harry Potter and Twilight and My Little Pony and shit.” (Except, he pronounced it shite, instead. French people with their French pronunciations.)

I just shook my head. I should’ve known.

“You get in there. You do what needs doing. You can talk about Harvey Keitel’s wang if you want. Or the sexual habits of dinosaurs. But above all else, crime fiction. Talk about crime fiction, for Chrissakes.”

He spun the cylinder, snapped it shut.

“You think you can do that for me?” he asked.

I nodded.

He handed me a Taser. I gave him a look.

“For Weddle,” he said. “He comes at you, you give him a dose of this.”

* * *

Crime fiction is king. Let me tell you why – after all, seems like a good introduction to the site, right? Me, showing up here, seems like I should start at the beginning, and the beginning is that crime is king.

One of my recent mini-crusades in writing is how to make the story and the characters more active. Right? People do shit. A lot of stories end up the opposite, though: People respond to shit. Love? Love can be passive. Falling in love is unwilling. Romance can be born unaware. Horror? Horror is often reactionary. Evil comes. It chops down your door with an axe. You evacuate your bowels. You run. You scream. You respond. Fantasy? Sci-fi? Mythic patterns. Be forced on a hero’s journey. Respond to new technology and changing conditions and future nonsense.

To be clear, I’m not saying those other genres are automatically genres of passivity. Not at all. I love those genres. But you could, if you were so inclined, fall into a somewhat easy pattern of passive stories and passive characters. Those genres allow that.

Crime, though? Crime doesn’t put up with that kind of bullshit.

Crime is like a agar dish of awesome: active elements growing aggressively. Character commits a crime, he does so actively. He is full of want and need. The stories are sodden with possibilities. Guy kills his wife’s lover? Jealousy. Rage. Sure, he’s responding to it, but his response is wholly active. He chases the cheating fuck across the lawn. He pops shut the shotgun’s breach and pushes two shells deep. He pulls the trigger and blows the cheating fuck’s guts out his belly and onto the lawn gnomes (intestines draped upon them like a feather boa on a Vegas dancer).

Bunch of assholes rob a bank?

Girl gets revenge on some sick prick by hanging him from a tree and, er, “pruning his man-branch?”

Cop goes off the reservation to make a side deal on the sly so he can feed his family?

Car bomb? Axe killing? Confidence game?

It’s all active. It’s all about people doing things. As a writer, you conjure the circumstances surrounding a single crime, and it’s like a series of dominoes starts to tumble forth into shadow. Who are these people? Why are they doing it? Motivations abound. Desires rise, triumphant. Fear and vice hold hands and jump. You’ve no idea where this trail of breadcrumbs may lead.

Crime is a transgression. It is a violation of social norms. Transgressions, deceptions, violations, violence: these elements serve as a wild source of conflict, and conflict is what we want. Conflict is the food that feeds the reader. An old writing professor said it best: in life we try to avoid conflict, but in fiction, we must head toward conflict. Or, like Tim O’Brien said in a recent interview: “When I hit plateaus, I head for the mountains. By that, I mean (or think I mean) that I do all I can to point a story or a novel toward its central human drama, toward its essential human mystery.” Goddamn right. Crime, then, is the ultimate expression of those mountains -- or, perhaps, as it represents a nadir, we might say it represents the valleys, pits and canyons, and the character must descend, must transgress, must cross the borders and boundaries that Should Not Be Crossed. The characters in crime fiction leave the plateau. They abandon the status quo. They choose that path.

It’s that choice that’s so compelling. The decision to transgress, to pull the trigger or take the money or crack some dude’s head open with a statue of the Buddha, that’s why we read it – or, at least, that’s why I read it. Why do you read it? Why, for you, is crime king?

Ooh. Dang. I gotta go. Weddle’s coming at me, and I want to get this Taser shot juuuust right.


Bryon Quertermous said...

Welcome. And excellent points. If I was in any other genre I'd be writing stories about people sitting around talking about writing stories. Now I just kill one of them every once in a while and everybody's happy.

And Taser's don't work on Weddle. I've tried.

Chuck said...

Damn that Weddle.

That's definitely one of the great things about writing this stuff: you never want or need for transgression or conflict. Steal something. Kill a dude. Run a con. Everything goes pear-shaped. Each crime, a grimy snowflake.

-- c.

Chuck Wendig said...

(Oh, and thanks, Bryon!)

Josh said...

Good stuff, Chuck. I will definitely keep this in mind the next time I start working on a crime story.

Chris said...

Well said. And "an agar dish of awesome"? That's so damn science-geeky, I swear you wrote it just for me.

Chuck said...


I know your heart, and I aim to please it.

-- c.

Dana King said...

I hadn't thought of it that way, but you have described exactly why I read and enjoy crime fiction. Things happen. Bad things. And now other things have to happen so we can get the bad things sorted out. Or made worse.

I also read for the writing, but your point is valid there, too. Its not the sentence beautiful that appeals to me (though they can; witness James Lee Burke and Declan Hughes); it's the sentence visceral. Exactly the right words, crafted with care and skill, none wasted. Good crime fiction can't afford to waste words.

Because shit's happening.

Chuck said...

Word, Dana.

I like crime writing that's spare, elegant, as clean as a single bullet or a thin wire pulled taut across pale throat.

-- c.

John McFetridge said...

Nice to see a mention of Tim O'Brien, too. I really liked The Things They Carried (I remember it first as a short story in an Esquire Summer Reading issue) and Going After Cacciato was a turning point for me, really opened things up - I'd say he went for the mountains, all right.

Ad I certainly agree with you about crime fiction and things happening.

Chuck Wendig said...



I really think O'Brien should be required reading for everybody, but I'm a jerk that way. :)

-- c.

Steve Weddle said...

Amen to Going After Cacciato as a must-read.

Nice work there, Mr Wendig. I think the built-in conflict is what sets crime fiction apart. Thrillers. Mysteries. Sure, those are in the mix, too.

Are westerns crime fiction?

Are Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat books?

Chuck Wendig said...

It's maybe a conversation for a different blog post, but I consider "fantasy" and "sci-fi" to be settings, not genres.

So, Vandermeer's FINCH is set in a fantasy city, but it's in the noir or detective "genre."

Stainless Steel Rat is a sci-fi setting, but it's a clever crime caper.

-- c.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hey Chuck! Welcome to DoSomeDamage. It is fabulous to have you here.

I think the point you make about crime fiction is excellent. No matter what sub-genre of crime fiction we are talking about - it is filled with action. I think this is why I often end up reading a crime fiction book to the end no matter how late, or early, it is. I will keep turning the pages until 4 am to finish a great story...the ride just sweeps me along. Other genres are wonderful reads, but I don't find myself losing sleep in order to get to THE END.

Chuck Wendig said...

Thanks, Joelle. :)

Will Hindmarch said...

Word, Wendig. I sometimes wonder if "crime fiction" is really a genre at all, or just a descriptor for thrillers about sometimes-bad people. I mean, so many stories — romances, adventures, horror stories — involve crimes that crime alone can't really be a genre, can it?

Except then we get into a whole discussion of what genre means, and one of us ends up getting a kick to the mandible, and it all gets messy. So forget I mentioned it.

Point is, good post.

Dave White said...

Well, well, well. Welcome Wendig.

last year's girl said...

I like you better than the other guy.

Chuck Wendig said...

Thankee, @Dave@

@Will -- also, thankee. Yeah, you're opening the floodgates to a whole other discussion about the trappings of genre. Crime fiction and its many offshoots tend to exhibit certain traits, but even still, the lines do get blurry.

-- c.

John D. Kennedy said...

Nice stuff, I approve!