Wednesday, 15 August 2012

YA Noir: A straight-shooting guest post by Ian Hiatt

Ian Hiatt: ruthless tweeter and badass blogger.
She sits across from me, a five dollar gin in her hand, a seven dollar scotch in those weary eyes.

"I want you to write a guest post for me," Kat says, fingertips dragging against the glass like they might wipe away condensation. But she takes her liquor straight; she's that kind of woman. As easy on the drink as she is on the eyes.

"Well, we can't always get what we want, Ms. Ellis." I take a sip from my own drink. Tea. Unwilling to bow to Welsh custom, I'm not getting sloshed before noon. But I don't live amongst the dragons, so I try not to judge.

Her fingers drum on the stained and pitted tabletop as she turns the glass in her other hand. She’s got a glare that could melt a gravestone, and she points it at me like she would a six-shooter primed to kill. With a certain level of malevolence, that sultry voice utters the one word that I could've died a happy man never hearing again.


And like a cheap suit on a rent-by-the-hour motel room floor, I folded. When I asked what possible words of wisdom I could shower down upon the masses with the skill of so many passing seagulls, Kat suggested I write about something relating to my latest project. That project, currently codenamed ROCH, is about as far from my comfort zone as I can possibly get. Which is why it's so damn fun.

For folks who don’t know me, I’m a young adult writer. There’s something so satisfying about dropping a bunch of teens into a hopeless situation and watching them squirm for twenty-five chapters. But my new project is very different from anything I’ve written previously. ROCH is still a young adult tale, but it's very much upper young adult. The reason it falls in that distinct upper age bracket is that it's a noir book.

Now, you might be thinking: Noir? Wikipedia says that only relates to film...Well, sit down, babydoll, and let me spin you an explanation. (For you males reading, I apologize for calling you babydoll...Just roll with it, okay?)

Yes. Noir typically relates to a film. That grainy black and white movie where our main character, John “Everyman” Gumshoeington, is a cynical guy just trying to make it in this crazy world. He’s got a mystery to solve, a dame to save, and a cigarette that needs smoking in a poorly lit Private Eye’s office while he nurses a glass of the drink. But in recent years we’ve seen this mood in decidedly non-typical ways. Take, for example, the plethora of comic book films crashing into theaters. You may recall a certain film called The Dark Knight, where the cynical main character Bruce “Batman” Wayne is just trying to make it in this crazy world. Grainy scenes? Organized crime? Oh, yes. Noir. Or how about Watchmen? There we get a more modern take on noir (though ironically in a non-modern setting). Or, easily the greatest example of noir jumping the film-ship, Sin City. Sin City, which is one of the biggest inspirations of my work on ROCH.

See, film is just a medium. To say that a genre only works in film is foolish. Every genre can find a home in other formats. It’s just a matter of getting it right.

So how does noir work in books? Quite easily, actually. You saw my opening paragraph. Grungy scene, grizzled characters, gritty dialogue. Here’s my checklist for how to do noir, but take it as just my opinion. This is what I enjoy about noir, and it’s what I enjoy writing noir as.

  • Present tense/first person. If you know me, you know how much I loathe present tense. It’s rarely done to an extent where it makes use of the tense. So why use it in noir? The immediacy of it. There’s no hindsight to be had, no deep thoughts, nothing beyond the gun in your holster and the street beneath your feet. It lends itself to being gritty.  
  • Voice. Your characters need to have a lot of it. I know, I know. This should be the case all the time, right? But here, your characters need to be leaping off the damn page. Violently. You can’t have an easy going noir character. You don’t get to have someone you’d like to grab a beer with. If your main character isn’t someone your reader would piss themselves to be alone with in a dark alley, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Story elements. Noir needs specific ones. Crime. Mystery. Femme fatales and weathered men. Basically, little Johnny trying to get a date to the Spring Fling ain’t gunna work in noir. Your main character lives in a world where it’ll be a miracle if he makes it to tomorrow, and he’ll probably have to kill someone to make sure he does. 
  • Setting. Noir doesn’t take place in East-Jesus-Nowhere, America. But it also doesn’t take place in a high class city. You need some grime for your main character to get mixed up in. He’s not going to be doing that in an upscale apartment or anywhere in the state of Maine. While you can set it in an actual city, your best bet is to go with something uniquely yours. Like Gotham. Or Basin City.
  • Mood. This is the killer. Because if your book doesn’t exude the noir feeling, it will fall flat. You can have all of the above and have it be a shining, pretty little book. But it won’t be noir. There’s a certain air to noir that can be difficult to not only achieve but sustain. I did a little paragraph up there, but to carry on for 60,000 words minimum? That’s tricky. But, as tricky as it is, it’s fun as all hell, too. You get to do a lot with noir that you otherwise wouldn’t. Not many characters in modern stories get to sit in a smoky bar, across from someone they find so incredibly beautiful and so unquestionably deadly. All of the qualities above factor in, but you can have a gritty character sitting on a park bench on a sunny Saturday. You can have a filthy, corrupt city where dandelions creep up through the cracks in the sidewalks. If you don’t cross your t’s and dot your i’s, it won’t be noir.

My advice? Give noir writing a try. It might seem a bit different, but it’s so fun you might find yourself wondering why it took you so long to drop beneath the canopy of workaday fiction to the bloody, disgusting underbelly of the storytelling world. Just make sure you’re armed with some interesting words and a revolver...


  1. I had the privilege of reading this while listening to Alanis Morissette "Uninvited." That song is strangely compatible with Noir. o_o

    I think the biggest difficulty with Noir is making the metaphors awesome and not cheesy, sometimes the line can be very thin. It can go from hardcore to laughable with a few bad turns of phrase. But, when done right, it can be very compelling.

    Well done post. Best of luck with the YA Noir. :)

    1. Thanks Bridget!

      You do raise an interesting issue I've hit. Like many people, I listen to a playlist to inspire my writing. But when you're writing noir, it's very, very different. You can't just pick up a song with lyrics that match your story/characters. My list's strongest members are instrumentals from noir films and James Bond themes... :P Other than that, it gets pretty tricky to find proper tunes for my writing!!!

    2. Haha, yeah, I can imagine! I write to the Inception soundtrack a lot, I feel like that might work, maybe. :)

  2. Great post. I agree that Noir as a genre can be easily transported to books (though I'd be afraid to try myself, so hats off to you!). Some of the Noir films I remember had narrative voice overs, which would become the narrative voice in a novel.

    1. Clare,

      That's basically what I find in my writing of noir. I'm not so much recounting what's happening in the story, but writing down the character's inner monologue. It adds a level of depth to the voice and while you can see that happen in a lot of books, it's not all that common. If you pick up any random book off your shelf, the narrative might be incredibly well written, but it's usually not all that discernible from any other narration. With noir writing, I'm finding that every sentence is built around the personality I'm writing for. :) It's insanely fun.


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