Newcomer by Keigo Higashino: How to Read Like a Writer
Not every book needs over-the-top drama, explosions, or suspense to keep readers captivated. Novels like Newcomer by Keigo Higashino have a quieter form of intrigue, giving readers a peek inside characters’ lives at the little secrets we all keep. Higashino’s novel grabs reader’s attention because of its characters, eclectic Tokyo setting, and spiral format.
Spiraling Around a Murder Mystery
Technically Newcomer is a murder mystery. The inciting incident is a woman being murdered in her apartment. Each character is somehow connected to her, even though most of them don’t realize it until Detective Kaga comes to question them. However, the novel is really about the small secrets people keep and community.
Told in nine parts, Newcomer spirals around the mystery. Instead of a linear story, following the detective around like most Western murder mysteries, Higashino takes a circular approach. Each part focuses on a different family unit or shop, beginning with those metaphorically farthest from the victim. This is why Higashino is able to tell so many characters’ stories in a single novel. Through each of these character units, readers and Detective Kaga get one step closer to the victim’s secrets, the murderer, and the truth.
The structure of the novel is not forced upon it or contrived. The spiral is born from Higashimo’s approach to his story. Instead of thinking of the novel as a murder mystery, he thought of it as the story of a community and the ripple effects of a crime. This is something you can apply to your own writing. How you approach your story will dictate which structure works best and which character’s story you tell. Many genres – like murder mysteries – have a strict, formula most books follow. Why not try a different approach? Why not take a different perspective? You might find you reach more readers that way.
Character-Driven: Every Person Has a Story
Newcomer is about people and how we are connected even when we don’t realize it. Each part not only shows how the family/shop units are connected to the victim, but also how they are connected to each other. Everyone has struggles and triumphs happening in their lives. Everyone is living their own story. And everyone has a small secret, a white lie they tell to protect a loved one, hide an indiscretion, or mask something they’re ashamed of.
What Higashimo has mastered is quick, effective character development. Even the most minor characters have clear desires, motivations, and fears, so they feel real. Because every character is fully fleshed out, they are interesting. That interesting quality is what allows Higashimo to spiral around the central conflict instead of approaching it head-on. Readers aren’t just willing to pause to glimpse the other characters lives, they want to.
If you wish to take some liberties with your story or try another structure, you need to craft fully fleshed out characters as well. Readers are willing to take a chance on new formats when the characters are gripping and real, when everyone has strengths and flaws on display and is living their own character arc. Excellent character developmental is a part of what makes the spiral story structure work.
Your Setting Is Your Game Board
The setting is also crucial to the success of Newcomer. The Nihonbashi area of Tokyo is eccentric, giving the setting a distinct personality. The shopping strip is composed of novelty and specialty stores that hold on to a bit of traditional Japanese culture where other areas of the city have modernized. The place feels fun and restrained at the same time. A reader who has never been to Tokyo would recognize the Nihonbashi district.
The story of Newcomer could not be picked up and told somewhere else. Only this area of Tokyo has the right mixture of family units, apprentice/master relationships, interesting shops, and integrated secrets. If Higashino had tried to tell this story at a different location, it would not have been as successful or turned out the same.
The shops of Nihonbashi allow the characters to have a passing relationship with the murder victim without really knowing her. That means a murder suspect is difficult to find. Unlike traditional murder mysteries, where suspects are constantly eliminated, Newcomer is about the search for a true suspect in a crowd of acquaintances. Like character development, the setting supports the spiral story structure.
When choosing the setting for your story, make sure it has a personality and could feasibly host the cast of characters your story needs. Then look at how the setting affects your story structure. Make sure you pick a place that meets your story’s and form’s needs.
Why an Editor Recommends Newcomer by Keigo Higashino
The techniques Higashino uses make his story grab readers attention can be applied to any type of story. Any and all characters keep secrets like people. Secrets are an opportunity to create both internal and external conflict as the secret keeper battles guilt and other emotions and the secret is eventually revealed. All stories also need a setting to support the plot and characters and a structure that enhances the tale. These techniques are not genre specific.
The way Higashino develops his characters, setting, and structure are subtle and masterful. You might not execute them in the same way, but you can learn from his novel. From Newcomer, you can learn to consider nonlinear structures, quickly develop your characters, and choose the best setting for your story to Ignite Your Ink.
What writing techniques do you want to try from Newcomer? Share them in the comments below. For more tips on reading like a writers and other aspects of writing and a free Guide to Building Strong Settings, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.