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SUBMISSIONS INSANITY: What Screenwriters Can Learn From Crime Fiction

Bang2write's Lucy V argues screenwriters can learn five valuable lessons from crime fiction before submitting their screenplays.

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Everyone knows I'm a blogger, script reader and script editor, but what you may not know is that I'm also a budding crime fiction writer.

I've been writing my debut psychological thriller for the past year or so, plus I've also been reading every crime, mystery and thriller novel I can (popular and not, traditionally AND self published), reviewing many of them over on my Goodreads page.

As with all my writing - and reading! - endeavours, I've picked up many tips and skills that can be applied to screenwriting, especially when you're thinking about submissions! So here's what screenwriters can learn from crime fiction - enjoy!

SUBMISSIONS INSANITY: What Screenwriters Can Learn From Crime Fiction by Lucy V. Hay | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

1) Crime fiction has a strong sense of AUDIENCE

If a writer does not know who their audience is, the chances of their story hitting the 'bullseye' on this is very limited (and if it does, it's pure luck - accident, rather than design). Many screenwriters will say their spec screenplays are 'for everyone' but crime fiction demonstrates that even within the same broad definition, there are LOTS of potential audiences you can reach. More on this, next.

SUBMISSION TIP:Think about who your screenplay's audience is and how you can make this story appeal to them. It can only help you, especially as agents and producers will ask this question.

2) They pick one style/ tone and STICK WITH IT

So, Crime Fiction is a very broad umbrella. Stories have to 'focus in' on a particular investigation or problem to solve during the course of the narrative. They may do this in any number of ways, including via a steamy dangerous liaison (like the titles in the pic above) or they may include graphic violence (titles in the pic below). Obviously sex and violence CAN mix, but generally speaking if you sign up for a hot love affair, you don't want torture porn in with it as well - it jars. In comparison, many spec screenplays do not stick to one style or tone as much and as a result, the story and characters' journeys can be hard to follow.

SUBMISSION TIP: Before you send your screenplay out, run a critical eye over your scenes. Do they all 'match' in terms of style/tone, or do any 'jar' and/or feel completely out of the left field?

3) Crime Fiction contains DIVERSITY 

Female protagonists and female secondary characters feature very heavily in crime fiction, because women are voracious readers. In addition, readers are demanding more and more diverse casts of characters, so it's not unusual to find LGBT characters in particular in stories where their 'difference' in a heteronormative culture is NOT their defining feature, or indeed their 'flaw'.

SUBMISSION TIP: Before you submit, think about your characters: what their motivations are and why. Is it to do with personality, or background? The former is nearly always preferable.

SUBMISSIONS INSANITY: What Screenwriters Can Learn From Crime Fiction by Lucy V. Hay | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

4) Crime Fiction is PLOT-driven

It's very fashionable at the moment to say that screenwriting is 'all about character', but this is largely BS expounded by idealistic bloggers and social media outlets. Fact is, viewers don't sign up to watch characters just chatting about stuff and sitting around. They want to see characters DOING stuff, ie. going on a journey of some kind, literal or metaphorical (or both).

Crime Fiction demonstrates superbly just HOW important plot is - quite simply, if the crime had not been committed? There would be NO story and NO journey for the characters to undertake!

In addition, many crime fiction authors - including myself - use screenwriting plotting and structure techniques in shaping their novels. So if you struggle with plotting as a screenwriter, you could do a LOT worse than read lots of crime fiction!

SUBMISSION TIP: Ask yourself WHERE the story begins before you submit your screenplay ... and where it leads to, plus WHY. This will help you focus your own structure and plotting.

5) Crime Fiction makes great MOVIES!

It's no accident that many of the titles in the pictures above have taglines like, 'Time's up, you're next' and 'Two wrongs don't make a right'. They give us a flavour of what the reader is to expect from the story, just like a tagline does on a movie poster.

It's a fact: crime movies frequently do well with audiences, at all kinds of budgets, in all kinds of sub genres. So obviously, huge bestsellers like GONE GIRL and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN will leap from book form to movie fairly effortlessly. They are 'pre-sold' in that readers who loved the book will likely go and watch the movie. Producers and agents love this kind of deal.

SUBMISSION TIP: Sometimes a 'pre-sold' deal can be a great way of getting a screenplay greenlit ... So why not think about writing your BRILLIANT crime movie or TV series idea as a novel, first?

Best of luck out there!

Get tips on writing crime with Jon James Miller's webinar
Devil in the Details: Writing True Crime Documentaries and Podcasts