Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Few genres have such a distinctive look and feel as noir fiction. A successor of ‘hard-boiled’ or ‘pulp’ fiction, you’ll know the conventions of noir even if you’ve never read The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep – seedy urban underbellies, trench-coat-clad PIs, cigarettes, femme fatales, whiskey, flickering streetlights casting white pools on Chicago streets, nihilistic emptiness, loveless sex, unhappy endings. It’s a real barrel of laughs.
Today, noir stands as the slightly smug older brother of the crime genre. He’s smart, philosophical, literary, engaging, and incredibly unpleasant. He’s not much fun at parties. But he can teach you a thing or two.
Even if you like your stories cheery and your characters pleasant, noir’s methods of storytelling, its history, and its cohesive merging of thematic and formal concerns can help make you a better writer. Here’s what noir can teach you about storytelling.
Protagonists don’t have to be heroic (or even likeable)
Let’s look at one incredibly beloved fictional protagonist: Harry Potter. Harry, at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is immediately introduced to the reader as a sympathetic character. We learn early on that his aunt and uncle are incredibly unpleasant, that his parents are dead, and that he sleeps in a cupboard. As J.K. Rowling’s series continues, Harry develops, makes friends, becomes a wizard, and, though he has a few moments of brattishness, remains a pleasant, easy-to-root-for hero. He defeats evil, stays loyal to his friends, and does what’s right.
Now, what if instead of all that, Harry was a philandering alcoholic with a history of drug smuggling? What if the first thing he did when he arrived at Hogwarts, age eleven, was isolate himself from the other children and smash in Malfoy’s skull, just because he felt like it? What if he refused to fight Lord Voldemort because good and evil are arbitrary and idealistic judgements that have no relevance in a vast and uncaring universe? What if the story wasn’t so much about Harry overcoming evil as it was about Harry getting wound up in some vague and violent domestic mystery and ultimately spending most of his time drinking, smoking, stewing in self-loathing, and entering destructive, hate-fueled relationships with other selfish, morally bankrupt characters? What if, instead of seeing Harry develop into a proud and noble wizard, we instead witnessed his moral, psychological, and physical decline?
Well, this abandoned plan for Harry Potter and the No-Good Dame may not have made it past editing, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t have been an effective piece of writing. The great thing about noir is that you’re challenged as a writer to craft characters who are irredeemably unpleasant and yet also compelling – characters who the reader is simultaneously repelled by and drawn toward. If you can make a reader root for your troubled, violent, and cynical protagonist despite themselves, then you’ve succeeded as a noir writer.If the reader doesn‘t like a character, how else can you make them compelling?Click To Tweet
Noir presents the logical extension of the Byronic hero template and offers a chance for writers to focus on humanizing someone who, in a non-noir story, would likely be an antagonist or a monster. It forces writers to think about the conventions of heroic storytelling in new ways and, through its various subversions, muddies lines between the standard character archetypes. If you’re thinking about this sort of stuff, noir has already helped you develop as a writer.
Endings don’t have to be happy
You’ve probably guessed this already, but my re-written Harry Potter book doesn’t look to be headed anywhere happy. Endings in noir fiction are interesting because, like Shakespeare’s plays, they don’t tie up the loose ends – major plotlines are often relegated to the shadows behind the foregrounded moral/psychological/physical states of the characters, and even characters who succeed in their goals can find they’ve actually lost out in an existential sense.
In The Maltese Falcon, for example, Sam Spade manages to solve the book’s central mystery through coercion, bullying, and seduction. It turns out his love interest is the murderer, and he hands her over knowing it could easily mean her death. Even the police are a bit taken aback, and Sam’s adoring assistant sees him as a monster. Then the story ends. Hooray?
As with the genre’s love for unpleasant characters, the real fun here comes in trying to craft a story that doesn’t build toward climactic success. When the world is acknowledged as a dark and unjust place, there’s no victory in re-establishing the status quo. Noir characters often find that achieving their goal is just another form of defeat, while those who do ‘win’ tend to find salvation in escaping – maybe they give up on the case, run off with the murderer, or kick the bucket.
Frank Miller’s Sin City series is so noir that it’s nearly pastiche, but That Yellow Bastard is a great example. Here, hero ex-cop Hartigan accepts death, and the ruination of his reputation, because it’s the only way to keep his lover safe.
Obviously, this is hardly a new phenomenon – Greek mythology has been murdering its heroes for centuries – but in crime fiction (a genre known for its adherence to commercial conventions), hollow victories, shattered protagonists, and the success of the villain can reframe standard narrative structures and subvert reader expectation in startling and memorable ways.
As a writer, the knowledge that your ending doesn’t have to be happy, or even climactic, allows for a tremendous sense of freedom. Crafting a lose-lose situation as an ending allows you to double down on your book’s dominant themes without worrying about sacrificing integrity for the sake of placating readers.Noir embraces thematic truth over narrative satisfaction, and it works. Click To Tweet
Better, unhappy endings force you to think about why endings work (or don’t). Why is it that some of our most famous and celebrated works of fiction – Hamlet, The Grapes of Wrath, Anna Karenina, Jude the Obscure – end in tragedy? What is it about tragic or nihilistic endings that strikes such a resounding chord?
Form and style can reflect themes
All the best works of art unify form and theme in a cohesive manner. There’s a reason Nabokov’s Lolita works best as a book, why Pollock’s paintings don’t work on-screen, why Breaking Bad would make a lousy film, and why Dark Souls could never be anything but a game. Exploring how form and style can reflect theme is one of the best things you can do to improve as a writer.
In written fiction, noir conventions manifest in several ways: prose is often sparse, stilted, and to-the-point; narration is often first-person, allowing authors to play around with unreliable narration; sex and violence are often portrayed matter-of-factly and without adornment; descriptions are physical and neglect flowery language; metaphor and simile conjure crude or profane images; and use of dialect helps root characters in deep, urban underbellies they have little chance of ever escaping. Smart noir writers play on the genre’s preoccupation with cyclical or stagnant human movement in interesting formal ways – as in a good sitcom, characters will often end the book where they began (only sadder and more alone than ever).
Embrace the deep end
One of the great joys of noir characters is their detachment from the regular social forces that keep us in check. The isolation of your typical alcoholic noir detective or gambling-addicted prostitute allows you to let your characters grow organically – you’ve taken everything from them and backed them into a corner – now let them loose.Noir characters are backed into a corner with nothing to lose. Cue the fireworks.Click To Tweet
Andrew Pepper, in an essay in The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction, put it best:
Nobody in noir fiction has a mother, nobody has children, nobody has someone that they love and care about. They live by themselves, for themselves.
Lots of writers’ advice regarding character development focuses on ensuring your characters have believable motivations – Kurt Vonnegut famously advised, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” – and how better to boil this down than to enlist a cast of characters who fight only for themselves?
The genre’s bleak conventions allow you to mercilessly throw your characters into the deep end to see whether they’ll sink or swim. You don’t have to carefully balance a character’s good and bad traits or ensure they have a viable means of narrative progression – let them fight for it, kill for it, betray their own mothers for it. Noir allows you to push past the cosmetic façade of your characters – their jobs, their family, their dreams, their magical adventure, that fight with Susan from the office they had – and go straight for the throat. This is a great thing to keep in mind for fiction of all types; after all, it’s only when your characters have suffered that you can really know them.
Applying the lessons of noir
Noir is, in many ways, a bit of a relic. It was parodied almost as soon as it emerged in the 1940s and has remained in the public consciousness mainly due to neo-noir film and TV (most recently in shows like True Detective and the TV adaptation of Fargo). That said, noir seems to inexorably attract some of the best and most accomplished writers of crime fiction – its foregrounding of setting, philosophical preoccupation, edgy nihilism, and tortured antiheroes invites a daring and intelligent approach.Noir conventions invite a daring and intelligent approach. Click To Tweet
Even if you have no interest in writing noir, writing a few short stories in the genre can be a great way to learn more about how plots are structured, how characters develop, and how form and style can reflect theme. You’ll find that you’re more conscious of genre conventions, narrative templates, and character archetypes, more suspicious of traditional heroes, and less sold on the idea of an unambiguously happy ending. It’s also a great genre to explore in terms of the relationship between written and visual art – it’s not often a genre appears so cohesively across film and literature, with each medium influencing the other.
For more on how unfamiliar genres could elevate your writing, check out Why Is Steampunk So Popular? and The 3 Golden Rules Of Writing A Western. Or, if you want to try your hand at noir, try How To Write A Better Murder Mystery Victim and How To Write A Damn Good Man. What’s your favorite noir fiction, and in what works or genres do you see its influence at work? Let me know in the comments!