Nuts and Bolts to the Eight Steps: Paul Tomlinson on Writing the Crime Thriller

Thrillers are more complicated because there’s a lot more variation – many more sub-genres…. All the plots have much in common, but they all have distinct features that readers or film viewers demand – the genre conventions or tropes. Many writers don’t realise how important these are….

In Crime Thriller, Paul Tomlinson tackles a challenging endeavor with detailed research and a compelling endorsement of formula. This text follows other how-to’s he’s written on genre fiction in his Genre Writer Series, along with novels and short works. Tomlinson discussed his work in Crime Thriller, and specifically the writing of noir style and hard-boiled private investigation tales, with Retreats from Oblivion

I see that you discuss the “evolution” of the private eye, gangster, and other figures. Did the historical development of the crime thriller inspire the structure of your book at all, since you begin with chapters on PIs and gangsters?

I was aware that the private eye story developed out of – and was in some ways a reaction to – the classical murder mystery story, so the idea of ‘evolution’ was definitely in my head. That awareness came from reading Julian Symons Bloody Murder and Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure, both of which I picked up in my local library when I was a teenager. I’d read the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was eleven or twelve years old and that had sparked my interest in detective fiction. Agatha Christie I couldn’t read at all – as a kid from a blue-collar background I felt alienated from that upper-middle-class milieu. I didn’t discover Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett much later, after I’d seen some of the film adaptations, but they were much more to my taste.

Gangster movies I first saw at university – I used to go along to screenings held by the film studies department. I was aware that they were related to private eye stories and had a vague idea that many of the movies were bundled together under the ‘film noir’ heading, but I didn’t have any understanding of the genres until I began researching them. I just knew I liked the ‘look’ of these films – and the cynicism and disregard for authority figures appealed to my teenage self. And it still appeals to my adult self!

Being born and raised in England, I didn’t have any real feeling for what Prohibition had meant to people in the States or how that had laid the foundations for real-life and fictional gangsters. But I was fascinated by how that short-lived genre captured a moment in American history. It was also interesting to see how the Western genre disappeared almost overnight to be replaced by movies set in the ‘urban jungle’ – again reflecting historical developments.   

You give all the nuts and bolts of crime stories in your chapters, then go into plot structures. I can imagine you have been researching all this for some time, not to mention your other books in the series.

Originally, I was only going to study how the plots of classic murder mysteries and private eye novels were constructed. I’d read somewhere that romance novels and murder mysteries were the most formulaic genres and so assumed they would be the easiest to learn to write – you just had to follow the ‘formula’. I’d never read a romance but I was familiar with mysteries, so I started there. I began writing, thinking I knew what the structure of the plot was supposed to be – but discovered I had no idea. The story fizzled after about ten thousand words and I was lost. I was working as an academic librarian and a battered copy of John G. Cawelti’s Adventure, Mystery and Romance crossed my desk and in that, I found some important clues to what I was missing. I picked up some Hercule Poirot novels and began dissecting them to see how they worked. Some of Christie’s books – Murder on the Orient Express and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for example – I think are too gimmicky, but Death on the Nile is a near-perfect example of that type of plot structure and I used that as my model.

Having constructed my own version of the ‘formula’, I then had to test it out, so I wrote a novel called The Sword in the Stone-Dead as a proof of concept. It’s a terrible title and not a brilliant book, but it showed me that my ‘system’ worked. When I discovered that you could publish your own books on Amazon, I used that book to test the waters. I sold a few and wrote a couple more – though the third of them is much more along the lines of The Thirty-Nine Steps, because I was beginning to feel – after two whole novels – that the conventions of the genre were a bit limiting!

I wrote up my formula and added a section on how I wrote the first one and published that as Mystery in 2017 – and that was the beginning of the ‘Genre Writer’ series.

I’d already done some work on the private eye novel formula, again inspired by Cawelti’s book and reading other academic texts on the genre. I used Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon as my model because it’s, again, an almost perfect example of the genre – whether you read the novel or watch John Huston’s film. I prefer Chandler as a writer, but his plots aren’t worked out with the same level of detail as Hammett’s. And again, I wrote a novel to test out the formula – it was a tongue-in-cheek PI novel set in the town just north of where I live, because that seemed like the least likely place you could situate a private detective.

Coming back to my process, Agatha Christie wasn’t the first writer whose novels I dissected. I bought a tatty second-hand copy of John Grisham’s The Firm and literally took that to pieces – separating the chapters into sections and counting words and trying to work out how he constructed his plot. I hadn’t discovered the eight-sequence plot model at that point, so that research got put aside, but it was my first go at the plot mechanics of a thriller.

The “eight sequence model” of scripting is central to your approach. Can you discuss why it’s so integral for writing crime thrillers?

The eight-sequence model is something that Frank Daniel created to teach screenwriting to students at the University of Southern California. As far as I know, he never actually documented it himself, but a number of his students have written about it. I learned of its existence and got hold of Paul Gulino’s book Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach – and it was the first time that I understood what plot was and how it worked. It was a model that was simple enough that I could hold it in my head but there was enough detail that I could use it to flesh out a story. It takes Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end and breaks it up into bite-sized chunks that each have a specific function to perform to move the story forward. For me, it was a real eye-opener. I picked up every scrap of information I could discover about the model and combined it with Syd Field’s ‘paradigm’ and I was off!

It’s probably clear from what I’ve said that – at least in terms of plot – I don’t think there is a great deal of difference between novels and screenplays – or even stage plays. The eight-sequence model can be applied to any long-form story. I never attended any classes on novel-writing, but I did go to some on screenwriting and television writing. And when I was a kid, the only book my local library had on ‘how to write’ was about writing stage plays. I just took in whatever I could – this was in the days before Amazon and the internet – and tried to find my own way.

As I said, the traditional murder mystery is formulaic and so it was easy to apply the eight-sequence model to that. There is basically one plot with two or three variations – you have a murder at the beginning or a murder at the midpoint or both. You write to the midpoint, making every suspect look like they could be guilty then you decide who the murderer is and write your ending and then you fill in the rest of the plot.

Thrillers are more complicated because there’s a lot more variation – many more sub-genres. When I started taking them apart and applying ‘the model’ I discovered a dozen or more variations. I ended up with two books worth – Suspense Thriller (2018) and Crime Thriller (2019) with a couple of dozen plot teardowns between them. In the first one I started with Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and the man-on-the-run thriller and followed the development of the genre through to psychological and techno-thrillers. All the plots have much in common, but they all have distinct features that readers or film viewers demand – the genre conventions or tropes. Many writers don’t realise how important these are or they think they’re ‘pushing the envelope’ if they do something off-genre, but mostly they’re wrong – audiences want ‘the same only different’ and that means they want the traditional plot elements shown to them in a new way.

I don’t claim that Frank Daniel’s eight-sequence model is the only way to plot a thriller – but you do need some structure to base your plot upon and this one works for me, both as a writer and as someone trying to explain genre.

It must be difficult to walk the fine line of informing newbies to crime fiction but also serving those who know the books and flicks but want to learn how to write them. Can you explain how you approached this issue? 

Yes, this is true. I pitch my genre series as a ‘deep dive’ into genre plotting, to try and distinguish it from a lot of the other more superficial guides that are available now. I’m focussing specifically on plot structure and genre conventions, there’s no general writing advice in there, you can get that elsewhere. I don’t want to patronise readers who already have good knowledge of a genre but at the same time, I don’t want to assume that things are obvious in case they might not be. I also have to account for the fact that these are my personal take on the genre – I read widely in academic and popular literature but in the end, I have to make my versions of the plot formulae. I know some people will hate the idea of a plot formula and I don’t use that term in the books – I prefer to think of them as models.

My book on character creation is probably the deepest I’ve gone into a subject and I did get one e-mail from a reader saying it was tough going – he compared it to an undergraduate textbook, so maybe I got that one slightly wrong. Who knows? If I’m honest, I’m writing these books for me – I’m learning as I go along. I want to clear away the fluff and get to the heart of the subject. And if I can explain a plot in terms of eight sequences, I think I’m getting there.

It’s good to see you engage with iconography, which is so important to crime film and fiction studies. Had you encountered these discussions in research of other writing texts, and if not, what inspired this aspect?

I think anyone who reads genre fiction absorbs the visual imagery and carries it with them. I’ve worked in libraries where the fiction for young teens had little stickers on the spines – a rocketship for science fiction, a cowboy hat for Westerns, and a magnifying glass for mysteries, and so on. And even in bookstores, the covers of books for ‘grown ups’ carry the same information. Much of that imagery now comes from movies but originally it came from the American pulp magazines and comic books. You knew what to look for on the newsstand for your kind of books.

Writers generally have become much more conscious of genre conventions or tropes, especially since the boom in ebooks and self-publishing. Amazon and other booksellers classify books into much finer niche markets that we ever did as librarians with physical books. If a reader wants an urban fantasy novel with a menage-a-trois between two males and a female where one of the males is a shapeshifter who turns into a dragon, then you can find that book. The algorithms will recommend more of them to you. And online reader reviews and star ratings will kill your book if you don’t include all of the correct genre elements. I’m not sure that ‘how to write’ books are covering that in great detail yet – because you have to read a lot of books and watch a lot of genre movies and TV shows to learn the details – I’ve been doing it for twenty years or more and I’ve only scratched the surface of a handful of genres.

With something like film noir, you become more conscious of the iconography because it is such a key aspect of the genre. When I was writing Crime Thriller, I put off that chapter until last because I wasn’t sure whether noir was really a genre – at least in the sense of having a unique sort of plot structure. It has certain genre conventions, but the stories are often either private eye novels or ‘noir romances’ or gangster stories. I’d already written a chapter on PI novels, so I opted to concentrate on the noir romance, because – well, who doesn’t love a femme fatale?

Noir romance is an interesting angle and worth its due, considering the prominence of titles like Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place. I’m curious about your interests in this genre, and how it opens room in the noir style. 

The reason I wrote a chapter on the noir romance was that I saw it as a recognisable sub-genre with its own plot structure – and plot structure was my topic. I’d planned on calling the chapter ‘Film Noir’ but then I read Julie Grossman’s Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir and I didn’t want to repeat the mistake she highlights – of assuming that all women in film noir are fatal. There is a small subset of stories in which they feature – In a Lonely Place is one of the classics – and they just happen to be some of the most memorable. The reason they’re memorable is that they’re some of the most dramatic female characters in crime fiction of that era.

In bad crime fiction, women are either victims or girlfriends. Or maybe the PI’s secretary – and that’s it. Good crime fiction has strong female characters – and some of the strongest are those we refer to as femmes fatal. Crime fiction allows for the fact that it isn’t just men who are criminals – women can be too. Sherlock Holmes wasn’t able to beat the woman, Irene Adler, she outwitted him. Brigid O’Shaughnessy gave Sam Spade a good run for his money. I like that sort of character. I’m drawn to outsiders and underdogs, and in our culture women have always been treated as such. It’s great to see them turn the tables on the tough guy hero.

Some people regard the femme fatale as a negative stereotype, saying that her use of sexuality means that she’s just a male fantasy of a bad girl, but I think that doesn’t do her justice. She’s a trickster who appears to be one thing but is really another, she has her own agenda, and that makes for a fascinating story. You’re not meant to like her or approve of her immoral actions, but you can’t help to be drawn to her because she’s fascinating. I don’t buy into the argument that if you cast someone as the villain that you are expressing hatred for them – and this applies to women, racial minorities, homosexuals or whoever. British actors have been heading to Hollywood for decades to play villains – because they’re some of the best characters to play! A strong female villain is a much better character, in my opinion, than the victim or the helpmate.

It’s great to see attention to the victim figure, which Thomas Leitch sees as essential in his important study, Crime Films, but is often neglected. What dimensions of crime writing are important in this approach?

Thomas Leitch says, if I remember correctly, that Hollywood would never make a film in which the protagonist was a victim because American audiences wouldn’t identify with him (or her) – and I think that’s right. You can have a hero who is an underdog, who is the victim of undeserved misfortune, but he must ultimately triumph. It’s the story of Rocky and hundreds of other stories. In the traditional murder mystery, the victim was the body in the library, and they had to be someone who each of the six or so suspects had a reason to murder – they were effectively a plot device and had to be someone who the audience didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for.

In the crime thriller, you don’t have that same plot restriction – the victim can be someone who didn’t ‘deserve’ to die. And you can have victims who don’t die. And the femme fatale, if she’s present, and even the hero himself can be – at least to some extent – a victim of the world in which they live.

Some attention to mechanics of the police thriller, like interviewing, are given focus. Do any recent novels provide solid examples for writers?

I think I’d been binge-watching the TV show Lie to Me when I wrote that section. I thought that was terrific, inspired by the work of the psychologist Paul Ekman, and the closest thing to a modern-day Sherlock Holmes that I’ve seen. I found the idea of micro-expressions fascinating. I’ve read a few books by ex-FBI body language specialists and things like that and as a writer, I think you have to have an interest in human psychology. One of the great things now is that online booksellers – both for new and used books – allow you access to a whole range of books. I dipped into a number of professional textbooks designed for students of law enforcement – including forensic pathology and interviewing techniques. In researching the books I try and go for non-fiction books on subjects like this rather than picking it up from novels.  

Anything else you’d like to discuss about your book, or other related titles in the series?

I’m not an expert and I’m not an academic – my answers here probably prove that! – and I’m not a bestselling author, but I am passionate about storytelling. My non-fiction books aren’t meant to provide the last word on the subject, I just want them to be practical tools that writers can use so that they can create the kind of stories that I want to read. Not everyone is comfortable seeing the mechanics of plot laid bare and if you’re someone who prefers to ‘write into the dark’ or by the seat of your pants, then the eight-sequence structure is perhaps not for you. Though it may give you some pointers when you come to edit your first draft. If you’re someone who outlines before you write, then I may have something to help you.

Before I discovered the eight-sequence model, it used to take me a year or two years to write a novel. Since I’ve been using it, I can write a first draft in three months. It works for me.

Finally, which crime book and/or film would you recommend that aspiring writers check out first to help launch their work?

For each of the sub-genres that I’ve written about, I have tried to identify three or four ‘classic’ examples – judged on the quality of their plot structure rather than any other criteria. If you want me to whittle that down to two or three, I’ll say that if you want to write a private eye novel, read The Maltese Falcon and watch the movie with Humphrey Bogart. If you want to write a classic murder mystery, Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile and maybe the Peter Ustinov movie or the British TV adaptation with David Suchet as Poirot. And if you want to write a man-on-the-run thriller, which is the prototype for all thrillers, check out Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps – the earlier of his two versions: I think it’s one of those rare occasions when the film is an improvement on the book. 

Paul Tomlinson writes genre fiction and books about how to write genre fiction.

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