Monday 5 March 2018

The Trials Of A Crime Writer: Serial Killers, Oh My!


A few months back I did a piece on my pet peeves in fiction (found here) and one of the things I touched on was serial killers in crime fiction. I talked in that piece about how it felt so cliched because serial killers in real life are so very rare. However, I am a crime author, and I am someone who has used serial killers in my works. I got a lot of questions after I posted that piece with why I didn't realise that so much of crime fiction is based on lingering suspense and generally one body isn't enough. Which lead me to this piece because I think there are other ways to draw out the suspense than just killing a bunch of people.

Now, this is going to be based on my own work, because I don't wanna be that person who goes through and nitpicks other people's work when I don't know the books that well, or just didn't enjoy them myself. So I decided the best way to do things was to pick apart my own work. That way the only person to blame for the mistakes is me and no one is gonna write me angry emails!

In the Dying Thoughts series, Tara has a gift, which if you've read the books, allows her to see the last moments of someone's life when she touches something they used to own. In the full eight books, three of which won't be discussed in detail because spoilers, there are very few instances of someone going around killing lots of people. I won't go into detail too much because there are people who've not read the books and won't want to know the ending. But I did manage to draw out the suspense in numerous different ways without bringing a serial killer into every single book.

You may be thinking that's different because Tara, as a teen, and this being young adult, isn't really the basis of the investigations because she's not actually in the police force. That if I were writing adult fiction that was a police procedural then I'd have to do the serial killer route. And in some ways you'd be right. However, my lack of delight over serial killers themselves is that they feel like a trope and a cop out. It feels like there are so many different ways you can draw out the book without having bodies dropping left and right. Especially when you're writing a series, because while it's fiction, it's just not even within the realms of believability.

In Blackout, which is a psychological thriller, I was able to draw out the suspense. No serial killers needed, and yes again, it's young adult, but have you not yet clicked that's what I write? My biggest problem with the trope isn't just that it's overdone, but that it seems to be the basis of so many books that when reading crime fiction (which I do a lot of) your first thought is usually: oh it's a serial killer. In fact some books I've ready have even commented on fiction's overuse of them.

But, I hear you say, what does that matter? Fiction is fiction and shouldn't it just be about a good story? And yes, you're right, it should be about a good story. I'm not saying that I don't read, and enjoy, books where there is a serial killer in them. My point is that I'm starting to wonder if there isn't just a better way to go about it I feel like it's one of the options we, as crime writers, have, and it should be the one you keep in your pocket for emergencies. If you want to write it in a series, then you should be aware that it can really only be done once, depending on the length of your series. The Dying Thoughts series is eight books. I could not, and would not, have that be the plot more than once in that many books. It would be silly and overused.

And yes, tropes exist for a reason and for everyone who agrees with me, there will be a ton of people who don't. And that's okay. I've now written over twenty books, and in that time I have used a serial killer *stops to count* three times. I think in 20 books, with 18 of them have crime aspects to them, that's pretty good. It's just what? A quarter of my books? Looking at a long series such as the Alphabet series which is over 25 books long, I can't recall how many times Sue Grafton used a serial killer, and all the time the basis was on the crime, from Kinsey's (the PI) point of view. I know it wasn't more than a quarter, if that at all.

My point is basically that one of the things you learn in writing, is that tropes exist. Sometimes they're good ones to use, and other times they become so common place that people expect them. Like the dreaded love triangle, or the chosen one in dystopia fiction. As writers of any genre, we should be aware of them and working to write our stories as they happen. There's no way to write something and it have zero tropes, but the point is that you should try!

So what's your thoughts on serial killers? Like them? Hate them? Think people should write whatever they please? Let me know in the comments below!

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