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Writing Noir – A Complete Study

Writing Modern Noir

Writing noir is a very intense task. It takes a writer deep into the recesses of dark alleys, darker conspiracies, and sad endings. If you’re a fan of noir fiction and you have the itch to tell a story, writing noir is a natural course of action.

However, writing noir in 2020 is not as easy as it seems.

The first problem is a lack of reference point. Let’s say you sit down to write a fantasy novella. You have a ton of modern fantasy epics as reference points showing the kind of things people like in a fantasy story these days.

The same is not true when writing noir. When noir writers think about great noir movies and books, they have to think back to movies like Chinatown and Sunset Boulevard.

This is not to say great noir writers no longer exist. One of my favourite authors is Ian Rankin, the so-called kind of tartan noir writers. However, the simple point is this. The best of noir writing and fiction happened more than half a century back.

Nowadays, we get the odd noir film and book here and there. However, such films and books rarely make the same impact. Take any modern noir film or book and compare its impact on modern art against Sunset Boulevard or Chinatown.

This is not a piece to lament the falling popularity of noir. Anyways, writers passionate about noir will continue trying to replicate the style. No amount of lament will deter them from doing what they want to.

In this study, we will cover some pointers on how to write noir for a modern audience. Modern noir is in need of a reboot and it’s up to writers to arrive at the challenge.

The Elements of a Writing a Noir Story

To write a memorable noir story, you need to create the right fictional elements.

Writing noir is much different from writing fantasy or drama for one big reason. Noir isn’t really a genre. It is a style.

There is a great difference between a genre and a style. Writers have a lot of flexibility while working within a genre. Just think about a genre and you will notice the many variations you can bring within it. If you’re writing fantasy, you can go write for kids with a series like Harry Potter or appeal to a more adult audience with a story like ASOIAF or The Witcher.

However, you don’t have the same luxury when writing noir. There are certain elements in your noir story that are almost mandatory.

We discuss these elements below. Some of the elements you find below are traditional noir tropes, while others are additions based on modern-day storytelling.

The Cynicism

Noir is for cynics. Your noir story cannot have a jovial and hopeful tone. It needs to appeal to the cynicism in your audience.

It is not necessary for your main characters to be cynical. They don’t need to be the sole source of cynicism driving your story. Remember, you need to make the audience feel cynical, not the characters. The characters can be naive, but the audience must be able to sniff out a reason to be cynical.

One modern epic closest to a noir is ‘The Dark Knight’ from Nolan’s Batman trilogy. While it doesn’t have some traditional noir elements, it is still a good reference point for noir writers.

The protagonist, Bruce Wayne, shows real sign of hope in the early part of the story. Remember Bruce Wayne is perhaps the most cynical superhero in comic lore. Yet, we see Bruce feeling hopeful about a better future for Gotham City thanks to Harvey Dent. Furthermore, he is also hopeful about returning to a normal life with Rachel by his side.

The madness of the Joker drives the good guys of the story into deep cynicism. Harvey, in fact, is driven to madness after starting as a real agent of positivity and hope.

While writing noir fiction, you need to make sure the events of your story make the audience feel truly cynical.

I remember feeling helpless for Gordon and Bruce while watching ‘The Dark Knight’ for the first time twelve years back. The ingenuity and rank cynicism of the Joker himself drove me into a corner and made me believe the good guys have no chance.

Cynicism is an important element while writing noir. How does one make the audience feel cynical? The next element will help with this.

A Broken System

If you follow politics in your country at all, do you ever feel disdain for politicians? Do you ever feel the current group of politicians will never bring real change? Do you ever get the sense that the whole system is fraudulent?

If you feel these things, you are cynical about the politics in your country. Even if you don’t feel cynical about your country’s politics, you must know someone who does.

The main contestation of cynical people is that the system is completely broken. Their feelings about the broken nature of the system drive their cynicism.

While writing noir fiction, the best way to drum up cynicism in the audience is creating a broken system.

In Sunset Boulevard, Joe decides to lie to Norma Desmond about the abysmal quality of her script. His sole aim in doing so is to make money and dupe the old actress.

Later in the story, we learn the inherent broken nature of Joe’s arrangement with Norma. Their relationship, the only real system in the story, is built upon a lie. The end of the story, the famous shot of Norma walking towards the camera, completes the broken personality of Norma.

While watching Sunset Boulevard, you are continually reminded of the lies people tell to get by in life. The broken nature of the system becomes clear early in the film until it finally reaches the boiling point at the end.

The Outcasts

When writing noir, it is important to remind the audience that the characters belong outside the system they are trying to change in some form.

In Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond are both trying to make it big in the movie business. While Gillis’ main challenge is to get his script accepted, Norma is trying to return to her former glory. However, their attempts to become a member of the film elite falls flat.

Jake Gittes is an outcast in Chinatown. In a story where everyone looks away from pure evil, Jake Gittes can’t. He has to stare at evil in its truest form. This makes him an outcast in the ruthless and morally decadent world of Chinatown.

In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is a wanted vigilante trying to bring order to Gotham. The Joker, on the other hand, is trying to do the opposite. Both are outcasts like the Joker likes to repeat in the film and he is not wrong.

The value of outcasts while writing noir is obvious. It gives the characters a challenge to overcome. Remember, an outcast, despite remaining outside the system, always tries to change it. In dealing with outcasts, noir writers get an easy path to shape their character’s journey. It is the best thing you can do to help yourself while writing noir.

Some Other Noir Writing Elements

The three elements covered earlier are crucial for writing modern noir stories. In the world we live in now, many traditional noir tropes are not essential. The only three elements to worry about while writing a modern noir are listed above.

However, there are still other things about noir fiction. They are not essential while writing noir, but they nevertheless help give the story some noir legitimacy. These tropes include –

Femme Fatales

People are used to expecting femme fatales in noir fiction. Typically, a femme fatale is an attractive woman who comes into the story to mislead the protagonist and manipulate him into doing her bidding.

Image Credits: Shannon Symonds

Generally, the audience will expect the femme fatale of your story to mislead the protagonist. You can use this knowledge to mislead the audience. The reason why you should avoid femme fatales is that the audience tends to expect some kind of trickery from the character. It is much better if you create a female character lacking any of the usual femme fatale attributes.

Night Scenes

Another attribute of noir films is setting up scenes during the night. ‘Noir’ is a French word which literally means black. It is no secret why so many legendary noir films were made during the black-and-white film era. However, this is again not a hard and fast rule. You can write noir fiction which takes place during the day. The darkness of the story doesn’t need to come from the night sky, it should emanate from the plot and characters.

First Person Storytelling

Again, not a necessary element, but one that offers weight to the noir tag. In the hardboiled world of noir fiction, it is easier to portray the darkness of a story through first person writing. Joe Gillis sets of Sunset Boulevard by bringing us into the story with his voice in the first scene. Chinatown follows Jack Gittes for the entirety of the story.

This is not to say that first-person storytelling is the only solution. The Dark Knight manages to jump between different characters and still present a hard-boiled world devoid of hope.  

Simple and Sharp Prose

If you’re writing noir, you need to have simple and crisp prose. Dashiell Hammett puts on a class in crisp writing in The Maltese Falcon. If you ever need an example of pared-back prose, read Hammett.

Remember, noir fiction generally talks about a big bad world. You don’t need to write like Salman Rushdie when talking about corrupt mayors or crooked cops.

As Admiral William F Halsey said, ‘Hit hard, hit fast, hit often.’ There is no better advice in the world for a noir writer.

Broken. Beaten. Scarred

In almost every noir story, you will find the protagonist getting hurt at some point or the other. The injury is almost symbolic, showing the struggle the protagonist is going through to meet his objective. While writing noir, throw in a punch to the nose just to give the audience some idea about the pain of the protagonist.

Avoid Happy Endings

Personally, I don’t like advising writers how to end their stories. It is something too personal in my view. Generally, noir stories end sadly. However, this is not a rule by any means. LA Confidential ends with the good guys winning. The Dark Knight ends on a sacrificial note, lionizing Batman’s fall from grace for the greater good.

The only thing you should remember about endings is this – they should be earned. Even if you decide to end on a happy note, make sure the characters suffer enough to get there. A cheap happy ending ruins a story.

Final Words – Writing Noir

Noir writing is a serious undertaking. As a writer, you don’t just need good writing skills. At some level, writing noir can become an anthropological exercise. Before creating interesting characters with broken noses, you first need to create a setting where only the ruthless survive.

One personal tip– look around the place you live when writing noir. Look closely at the people walking down the alley. In some, you will find the darkness you need to fill your empty page.

Also read: What is Speculative Fiction?
Also read: Indian Fantasy Novels: The Best Fantasy Fiction From India

(Featured Image Credits: Wikipedia)

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