TALKING GENRE: IT’S NOIR BABY!
A friend of mine and I were talking recently about creating Noir stories. This is a summary of my understanding of how those old thrillers and detective tales are constructed.
Noir isn’t necessarily reliant on the 30’s and 40’s setting. One of my favourite modern audio dramas is Harry Strange. It’s basically neo-noir (a noir character with a noir code, fighting evil in the modern world). Harry Dresden, likewise. Likewise, Veronica Mars does a great neo-noir – complete with computer hacking. Blade runner presents us with future-noir. I’m actually pretty sure most of us are pretty familiar with the genre (enough to experiment with it) if we think about it a little.
From my perspective the key to noir is in the characterisation.
Noir characters are isolated loners and the key to understanding them is realising that they are displaced in time. Noir uses the same tropes as certain cowboy stories that involve an out-of-place medieval code of chivalry that lands in the middle of lawless frontier life (see any of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood – as well as Once upon a time in the west).
When the Knights of the old west are dumped in a gritty city (hard boiled, cynical, yet sticking to their code because it’s who they are and it can’t be abandoned because it would be a betrayal of self) that’s what we understand more traditionally as noir (see the Maltese Falcon in particular). When these Knights of the Forties land in the present or future it’s still noir – essentially because of the character having that sense of being displaced in time and place – misunderstood, mistrusted, and alone. The voice-over patter is helpful but not essential and the classic noir metaphors can easily be updated. What matters most is the unyielding core of the character’s self-defined morality and a story that challenges that core at every possible turn.
The character arc of a noir character is far more important than the plot itself and typically adheres to the following pattern.
It begins with the character down-at-heel and waiting for trouble to walk in.
The arrival of said trouble follows along with the presentation of a dilemma.
Dangers and setbacks follow – accompanied (most importantly) by repeated temptations to abandon his/her personal code and not see the situation through to a resolution.
Resisting these temptations exacts a heavy price usually costing him/her any advancement or benefit that may have been on offer. Essentially a high cost to the hero is exacted for choosing to stay true to oneself.
This results in the character coming full circle back to where they began (but stronger for not having betrayed their own conscience) and in the denouement we see them waiting once again for the next round of trouble to walk through the door.
Further thoughts on the essence of noir? Have I missed the point, misinterpreted the genre, or otherwise trampled over what Noir truly is? If you’ve got any thoughts on what makes a noir tale tick, then please, add them here. I’d love to hear them.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.