How to Write Urban Fiction Novels
Urban fiction or “street lit” is a popular genre -- usually self-published -- that deals with the harshest social-economic realities of inner city life: poverty, crime, gaudy sex, fast romance, graphic violence, verbal abuse and domestic violence. Writers of urban novels often have life experiences that provide realistic depictions of the people, dialogue and environments. If you don't have the personal experience, then you should spend time in detailed research which may include reading and analyzing successful urban fiction and joining literary discussion groups that focus on urban literature.
Authentic Ideas, Themes and Purpose
Use an event that happened or might have happened to you or a friend. Develop a newspaper story, or something you or an acquaintance have seen or heard. Strong feelings about the subjects and themes of street lit such as hypocrisy, injustice and racism can become the basis for your story. To keep a sense of direction, write a statement of purpose in a single sentence -- why you want to write the novel and what you want to prove. For instance, you may want to prove that when inner city African-Americans strive toward basic human goodness, racial bigotry and poverty can overcome good intentions.
Tone, Mood and Characters
The tone of urban fiction is usually similar to that of cinema noir, but some successful urban novels such as those by Ashley & JaQuavis maintain a high-spirited mood and a cast of characters that defy stereotypes. Urban novels sometimes have multiple protagonists and strong secondary characters. Female characters are not just sexy vixens -- instead, they can become gangster anti-heroes or loving mamas who turn out to be villains. Use short, tight narration, description and dialogue that fit the nature of the characters and show their humanity -- the way hustlers, prostitutes, gangsters, drug dealers and hit men and women think and feel.
Synopsis, Chapter Outline and Point-of-View
Write a synopsis of your story. Tell the story in three stages -- the beginning, middle and end. Include ideas for dialogue as you write. Think of this as a rough draft to get ideas flowing. Make an outline with a synopsis of what happens in each chapter. Contrast scenes that are stark and lewd with heartfelt home or love scenes, the flashy affluence of gangster life and big action scenes that show forces in conflict. Decide how to tell the story -- the point of view -- with first person or third person. Urban fiction uses very little narration; telling what happened should be kept to a minimum once you begin the novel. Even small scenes should avoid long narratives in favor of action.
Pace, Plot and Action
Urban novels should be fast paced and well-plotted. You could start with a technique known as in medias res -- in the middle of action already in progress. Flashbacks that follow this type of beginning and continue throughout the story can provide exposition and background for events, connections and plot twists. Show the internal emotional conflicts and external social/cultural struggles that generate conflicts between protagonists, antiheroes, antagonists and victims of violence. Arouse emotion with intimate thoughts and actions, gory details, blood and bullets. Combine action with short narrations of one sentence that reveal a character’s dying regrets in a violent scene or an epiphany about life or love during a sexual encounter.
Caution: Don’t overwrite with too much gore, violence, sex or sentiment.
Description and Dialogue
Write explicit, descriptive details that appeal to the senses. In urban fiction, sights, sounds, tastes, bodily sensations and smells need to come across to the reader like a cinematic experience. Use verbs, nouns, verbals and adverbs that belong to the inner city environments you are writing about. Use adjectives with caution. Write dialogue that is straightforward and in-your-face -- the language of ghettos and brothels, street corners, front porch steps, parking lots, drug labs and prisons.
Tip: Make sure your narrator helps readers understand urban slang and regional dialects when necessary.
- Nashville Public Library: Urban Hip-Hop Fiction
- Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript; Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald
- Time Magazine Blogs: Ashley and JaQuavis Coleman: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; Judy Rosen
- National Council of Teachers of English: Politely Disregarded: Street Fiction, Mass Incarceration, and Critical Praxis; Karin Van Orman and Jamila Lyiscott
A native of New Orleans, Amanda Petrona holds a Bachelor of Science in anthropology/social psychology and Master of Arts in English. She taught writing, research and literature at LSU Baton Rouge. Petrona founded Wild Spirit Louisiana, an organic farm, nature conservatory, and education center for sustainable and holistic living.