THE CRIME WRITERS’ ASSOCIATION®

The CWA Debut Dagger Competition

What to Write

Obviously we can’t tell you what to write – the whole point of the Debut Dagger is to find fresh and original contributions to the genre. But hopefully this page will give you a better idea of what we’re looking for in the opening chapter(s) and the synopsis.

One of last year’s judges summed it up well when she wrote, ‘A successful first chapter should draw one in, introduce one to the main characters and subject matter, locate one in a chosen world, intrigue, and surprise. The synopsis should indicate the proposed narrative arc, and the judge should feel that the author will be equal to the task ahead.’ The synopsis shows you’ve got a story worth telling, and the excerpt shows that you know how to tell it.

The Chapter(s)

Leave ’em hanging

We used to describe the 3000 word opening as the ‘first chapter’, but a lot of authors write chapters which are substantially shorter than 3000 words. To clarify: you should send in as much as you can within the word limit, but send chapters not chunks. The point of a chapter is that it has a clear structure, and builds to a dramatic conclusion of some sort. The same should be true of the entry as a whole, however many chapters it is. Don’t let it dribble out on the 3000th word: build to a cliffhanger or climax which leaves the reader desperate for more.

Cut to the chase

If you are writing for a competition like the Debut Dagger, try to have a significant scene. That doesn't mean you have to have a body on page one, but if you have ten or twelve pages to play with, make sure you use them. One of the beauties of fiction is that you can skip over all the boring bits of life: taking the long way round slows things down for your reader, and doesn't make best use of the limited space you have to impress the judges.

Hoard your characters

Characters are the key to the story: if the reader doesn’t care who people are, he won't care what they're doing. Try to give each character a solid introduction, and don't overload the reader with too many characters at once. As the author, you've probably spent months or even years with your characters and you know exactly who they all are, but the reader doesn't have that advantage. This is particularly true for the Debut Dagger, when the judges are having to meet whole new casts of characters at bewildering speed.

Build Tension

Many of the entries that work best grip the reader with a genuine sense of tension. This isn't just about overt danger or violence: it's amazing how dull a gruesome murder can be made to seem if it's written badly. Effective tension comes from a sense of menace and anticipation, built up with mood, little clues and tell-tale signs.

Beware the malapropism.

Typos are bad and you should strive to eliminate them, but if a few typos could ruin a novel then most bookshops would have empty shelves. Far more dangerous is using a homonym or near-homonym to unintentionally hilarious effect. Two examples we’ve come across (in strong entries) were the man being chased through the supermarket who hid in the 'isle of crisps', and the 'burlesque policeman' who walked into the room. Both of these made the readers laugh out loud, breaking the tension of otherwise good scenes.

Avoid cliché

There are any number of clichés associated with crime fiction – grizzled cops, hard-boiled PI’s, sexy dames and psychopathic villains, to name but a few. Part of the fun of working in the genre is being able to play with these stereotypes, but you’ve got to do something new with them. One year an editor made the plaintive - or pointed - observation: 'Why are all innocent female victims invariably blond and beautiful?'

The warning against clichés applies equally (or even more) to language. Unless you're writing for a tabloid, avoid really common terms: 'emotional rollercoaster'; 'heart-stopping surprise'; or, a pet hate, 'feisty'.

The Wow Factor

It seems fitting to leave the last word on this subject to another one of the judges. For any chapter to count in a competition like this, the reader must put the material down thinking ‘Wow!’; and then, ‘I need to read more’. It's not enough for the reader to want to read more, they must put the excerpt down feeling they need to know what happens next.

The Synopsis – Don't Sweat It

For the majority of Debut Dagger competitors, writing the required synopsis is seen as more daunting and difficult than writing the 3,000 word opening to their novel. You are not alone! Experienced and published writers balk in exactly the same way that you do when faced with writing one. Feel better? You should.

Why is a synopsis necessary?

  1. It shows you are professional enough to know what you are doing.
  2. That you can tell a well-constructed story.
  3. That you have the technical and imaginative skill to produce an interesting and marketable book, with well-rounded characters and a logical and believable plot.

Is a synopsis the same as an outline?

No. A synopsis gives a narrative overview of the story's progression from beginning to end, written in the same style that your 3,000 word entry is written. It follows the novel's progression up to and including its end. And yes, you must give the denouement. Cliff-hangers and teasers are outlawed.

So what is an outline?

An outline gives a breakdown of the story scene by scene, chapter by chapter, character interplay by character interplay from beginning to end. It is a blueprint constructed by the writer for their own use before they actually begin to write the book.

What makes a synopsis so difficult to write?

The challenge of writing a good synopsis is out of all proportion to its length. Writing a synopsis requires you to simultaneously know everything that’s going to happen in your story, and be able to strip 99% of it away to leave only the most important details – and to then sum that up in a fluid and engaging way. If you haven’t written the book yet (as many Debut Dagger entrants haven’t), that can be tough, but if you don’t have a clear idea of your story then the difficult business of writing a synopsis becomes almost impossible. Clarity of expression always follows clarity of thought.

You’ll probably find you need to take shortcuts and make simplifications that underplay the complexities of your novel. Don’t worry. The judges don’t know (and don’t care) how much you’ve oversimplified or even misled them with the synopsis, they just want it to sound like something they want to read. Equally, don’t worry that the story may change when you actually come to write it. All books change during their writing, characters begin to grow and take on lives of their own, to veer away from the planned path, unexpected events impose themselves. None of that matters if the completed book works. Look on the synopsis as a road map, but one which allows a few unexpected but interesting diversions along the way. And above all, remember this. With the synopsis, you’re not giving us a schematic plan of the novel; you’re not bound to give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You’re doing what writers have always done: you’re telling a story. Just shorter.

What makes a synopsis stand out?

  1. Use the same narrative style that you use in the book; if the book is 'chatty' don't change to formal in the synopsis.
  2. Be clear. Show plot movements in order, introduce new characters as they appear, if they are major characters show us the 'why' of their actions as well as the 'what'.
  3. Never offer meaningless sentences such as: “Something dreadful was about to happen.” or “What happened next would devastate him.”
  4. Show how sub-plots interlink with the main plot and its characters.
  5. Do not include physical descriptions unless it is absolutely essential.
  6. Always use present tense, never past.

What length should a synopsis be?

A novel can be described on any number of different levels, from a sentence which gives the barest bones to the full 100,000+ words which gives every last nuance and detail. Crucially, however closely you look at it, the shape should always remain the same. A synopsis for the Debut Dagger should be between 500 and 1000 words. Do not be tempted to overwrite to fill more space: editors and agents who read your work are eagle-eyed where 'padding' is concerned.

Should the synopsis go before or after the opening 3000 words?

For online entries, the opening and the synopsis must be in the same computer file. We prefer the synopsis to come at the end, starting on a new page. But you wouldn't be disqualified if you don't do this.

If this brief fact sheet of synopses dos and don'ts takes away some of the apprehension surrounding the 'S' word, it's done what it set out to do. All that's left is to wish you good luck, good writing, and a dearth of rejection slips.


This page incorporates material written by Mike Jecks, Kay Mitchell and Edwin Thomas.

Michael Jecks organised the Debut Dagger in 2000 and 2001. He is the author of the best selling Templar series.

Debut Dagger Organiser in 2002, 2003, and 2004, Kay Mitchell is the writer of a series of police procedurals featuring DCI John Morrissey and, writing as her alter ego Sarah Lacey, a humorous crime series featuring tax inspector Leah Hunter.

Edwin Thomas was runner-up for the Debut Dagger in 2001, and subsequently organised the 2005 and 2006 competitions. He has written six novels, including three under his pseudonym Tom Harper.