Detectives & Dames – Writing the Hardboiled Genre

During my holidays between Christmas and the end of 2016, I decided to jump into one of my story projects and get it going. I had my second novel to finish editing (second draft at around 40%), but decided to instead push on one of the story premises I’d posted some time ago, the Sci-Fi noir “The Song.”

As I sat at home, thinking what I should write, which story to pursue, this one kept coming back to me, with new details, new side-stories that branch off from the main one as the character listens to more of the same hypnotic melodies.

The Song is different to the other premises in that I had already written a few pages of it before I proposed it as another one-shot, and going back to it and advancing I remembered just how difficult it is to write Hardboiled stories, a genre I often and wrongfully call the same name as its film counterpart, “Noir.”

The Shamus, PI, Private Dick, Private Eye or simply, the Detective
The Shamus, PI, Private Dick, Private Eye or simply, the Detective

Hardboiled stories, as crime or investigative thrillers need something that in most other genres you can get away with sweeping under the rug: logic and answers. Where in Fantasy and general Sci-Fi you can have shaky motivations and even get away with some unconvincing plans for characters—though it all depends on how blatantly bad those are—in the Hardboiled genre the steps or parts of the crime, the investigation and those caught in it are profoundly important.

The reason for this is that the villain’s plan or the crimes are the pillars of your story. They aren’t just starting points for the journey, a simple propellant for your plot. In a Hardboiled or Noir story, the conflict is the core, it puts the characters on the board, sets the ‘hero’ on its journey but it is also the goal. To discover the truth of the conflict, to find out why it happened is what you’re there for. Even the final confrontation against the big bad won’t happen unless there is that discovery.

Sometimes shadowy characters not only advance the plot but also serve as platforming segments
Why did she come to you? Does she genuinely feel something, or is it all a ploy? If so, what’s the end-game?

So, to make sure that the journey, stakes and the character interactions feel worthwhile, you must properly spin the conflict’s threads. There is only one ‘person’ who can sweep inconsistencies under the rug, and that is the corpse. The dead can take their secrets…and the gaping plot holes, with them to the grave, but even this needs careful handling, lest you make it too apparent.

That is the greatest challenge I’ve faced writing The Song, forcing me to take my time to outline each section of the story properly. Part of the reason for this is that the main story branches off into memories, each a different story altogether, so the challenge is creating this logic while at the same time making sure the main branch’s logic stays solid.

But logic is just one of the things to consider when writing Hardboiled stories. There are two other important factors: darkness and intensity.

Darkness can sometimes also be physical darkness, thing happening in the shadows

When I say darkness, I don’t mean the story is going to be extremely dark, with people living in hopeless situations and dealing with gruesome and gory events. I mean, they can, but that’s not the meaning of darkness in this context.

Hardboiled stories deal with the darkness in people’s souls, the holes in their morals, the things they do when their convictions fail, when greed, lust and pride take over. In fact, the deadly sins are often great for characterisation in the Hardboiled genre. Every character, no matter who they are, from the cynical private detective to the femme fatale all have a vice that very often takes over and makes them forget their virtues.

There are, of course, more literal vices as well! Read classic hardboiled stories, everyone goes through at least four packs of cigarettes per scene!

Virtues are rare and sometimes only the protagonist has enough control over his own darkness to keep his morals and conviction intact. The same applies to the main character’s allies. But the thing about the Hardboiled genre—if not all good fiction—is that the villains aren’t just balls of malice and vice, without any redeeming features. They are still people, they’ve just compromised themselves so many times that now it’s just easier to do the wrong thing than the right, which is why they end up in trouble and in the protagonist’s way.

The common vice for hardboiled characters is their boundless cynicism. “Everybody lies,” is at the core of their beliefs. Another point is they don’t trust people’s sincerity or emotional intensity. They’re eternally jaded to emotions, their own more than those of others in fact. They’re burnt out, have seen it all, and if they haven’t, they’ve at least experience enough to pass judgement, mostly negative, without a second glance.

I knew she was trouble…

They’re not bad people, it just takes a lot to make them believe you truly care about what you’re saying. To a hardboiled character, your desperate tears as you beg for their help in finding little Timmy are just crocodile tears meant to manipulate them. The seductress in the tight red dress, with legs that seem to go on forever, is hitting on you because she running a con on you, there’s no way she really means it.

If a hardboiled character loves and it doesn’t pan out, it further hardens them against feeling the same emotions again. Theirs is a very tough shell.

But in writing hardboiled stories, you often tiptoe on a very thin line, the one between truly hardboiled and just a complete bastard. It’s too easy to cross the line. A good way around it is ensuring he only crosses the line with those who deserve mistreatment, like that casino owner throwing his weight around and abusing his staff.

Violence is also common in Hardboiled stories, and one thing that characterises the protagonists in the genre, is their willingness to engage in violent behaviour. They don’t shy away from breaking a jaw or shooting someone. They’re always ready to meet violence with the same, if not escalating. This varies from one character to another of course, but it’s not unusual to see a hardboiled character punch his way to answers or responding to a threat with a direct confrontation.

Another, if controversial, aspect of the violence in hardboiled fiction, is violence against women and even children. And I don’t mean a fist fight between contenders of different genders, but physical abuse. Most modern works in the genre shy away from this, and it was all too prevalent in the classics, some of which were written in the 1920s, when such things were barely even frowned upon. If this is a point you want in your Hardboiled setting, handle with care.

Be an ass to the Man, but keep the little man safe.
Be an ass to the Man, but keep the little man safe.

The last point about the Hardboiled genre is intensity. Despite being cynics and acting in a way that makes them seem callous and uncaring, cold even, Hardboiled characters speak with amazing intensity. It’s one of the hallmarks of the genre. A shadow is not merely a shadow, but a reflection of the person’s soul, as dark as their depravity. Grey eyes are the colour of storms, and you can see the twister forming behind them. Every attractive person, male or female, is dangerous, their allure meant just to trap yet another unfortunate soul.

Hardboiled characters get creative with their intensity, adding colourful descriptions to everything, yet never reaching the dark path of purple prose.

Violence and death are common in Hardboiled stories. It's usually a corpse that kicks things off!
Violence and death are common in Hardboiled stories. It’s usually a corpse that kicks things off!

They might be emotionally damaged, cynical about everyone, even themselves, but their inner monologues convey how powerfully they feel about a certain subject, even if that subject is how little they believe in other people’s sincerity.

Below is a small sample script I wrote almost four years ago, for a project novel that I shelved while working on my first novel and its sequel. The fragment is by no means perfect and I do think I go a bit over the top with the intensity, yet another fine line you need to make sure not to cross. But then again, I’ve read worse (or better depending on the point of view) in the books of the Hardboiled genre’s masters.


Never trust a dame. It’s the basic rule of this business. Pretty eyes and long legs will only lead to trouble. I saw right through her the moment she walked in my office, wet from the rain, eyes wide like a puppy, crying her crocodile tears. She hoped for sentimentality or pity from me, but I’m no rookie, haven’t been for a while. I’ve seen it all before and she didn’t fool me for a second.

Nathalie Swifton was trouble alright; she had it written all over her. If I wasn’t careful she’d be the death of me. All other dames before her had come close enough. But I’d still listen to her sad story, and if the price was right, I’d take the job, even if I suspected I’d regret it later. Why? It’s what I do. I’m a shamus, a Private Detective. I’m the one you come to when the shadows in this bright city have taken all you can give, and then some more. I’m the man you rest your hopes on, like the last piece of driftwood in the big open sea. They come to me when everything else has failed them, when they’re but an inch from becoming just another soulless being in this cold harsh town, another walking corpse in this sea of the dead.

Judgement at a first glance, described quite intensely. That is just another part of the Hardboiled genre, and to be honest it’s the most fun part to write. I would suggest, baseline, go as crazy as you like, over the top and then some. Then when you come back for a second draft, tone it down, ground the descriptions a bit more. Not every physical feature or emotional quirk needs a colourful description.

Sometimes a chair is just a chair, a shadow is just a shadow. But sometimes, green eyes are a window into a jungle, where the dame’s wild soul lies, prowling, pacing enticingly, drawing you in.

Sometimes a cup is just a cup

I like the hardboiled genre and I think it plays exceedingly well with the Science Fiction genre, especially with cyberpunk—Blade Runner is a great example—but I’m now also intrigued as to how it works with other fiction genres. I began, years ago, to write a fanfiction Warcraft series with a hardboiled High Elf Paladin named Thadil Swiftgale. I think I’ll go back to this concept, just rip it out of Warcraft and so something original with it.

What do you think? Have I got it right with the Hardboiled genre? Or am I missing something? Did I fail to mention the hardcore drinking and chain smoking most characters have?

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I love everything readable, writeable, playable and of course, edible! I search for happiness, or Pizza, because it's pretty much the same thing! I write and ramble on The Mental Attic and broadcast on my Twitch channel, TheLawfulGeek

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