Image: Matthew Loffhagen
What is it about crime stories?
Even the authors who write them can’t agree, with some declaring it’s the satisfaction of confronting evil and others declaring it’s the vicarious thrill of participating in it.
Either way, crime novels are popular. No matter what bookstore you enter, you’ll find a crime section. With so many novels written in the crime genre, it can feel like an easy one to write in, but as with anything else, it only looks easy when it’s done well.
Luckily, those who do it well have shared their thoughts on what makes a good crime novel, so I’ve been able to collect some of the best advice on crime writing and dissect why it’s true (and why it isn’t in some cases).
So where do we start?
Start with a murder
It’s received wisdom that the best crime novels are those where there’s a murder in the first chapter. It’s in the nature of the writer to regard this as a challenge and veer in the other direction, but on this occasion, it’s good advice.
When writing crime fiction, you should almost always start with the crime.Click To Tweet
All narratives detail the complete story of one conceptual ‘item’. That item can be a person, an event, a relationship, a place, a belief, etc. In crime fiction, the conceptual item is the investigation of a crime. Characters may be the best part of your story, but they don’t define the narrative, and so starting the story with them makes everything before the crime feel tacked on: the reader instinctively believes that anything before the crime isn’t the ‘real’ story.
Place the body near the beginning of your book — preferably on the first page, perhaps the first sentence.
– Louise Penny
Even if that wasn’t true, starting with the crime still lets you start with drama and intrigue. Moreover, it’s the drama and intrigue the reader is expecting. Even if your first chapter is a fascinating character study there will be, through no fault of your own, a sense of disappointment or impatience from your reader if they expected the famous first-chapter crime.
That’s not to say the crime has to begin the story chronologically, but it should be the first event a reader encounters. Feel free to skip backwards when you start your second chapter. Having assured your reader that the game is afoot – acknowledging the boundaries of the narrative and feeding their desire for instant gratification – you’re safe to continue in whatever way you want without losing their attention.
Be character driven
I think that a crime novel – like any story – succeeds or fails on the basis of character.
– Michael Connelly
Your crimes will be exciting because of the stakes and those are defined by the characters. The master plan may hurt some characters, but whether we care about that is the difference between your plot being ‘clever’ and merely ‘technically impressive’.
Compelling characters chasing each other around a city will be more interesting than dull characters enacting the most fiendishly brilliant plan ever conceived. Of course your crime doesn’t have to occur in the city. In fact there’s a school of thought that says it shouldn’t.
Location, Location, Location
It can be convincingly argued that the more mundane the setting, the more shocking your crime will be. Some crimes are expected, they fit our understanding of the world, and this expectation saps the natural outrage and shock you may want from your reader.
The more Eden-like [the setting], the greater the contradiction of murder. The country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighborhood better than a slum. The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.
– W.H. Auden
This is only partly true, in fact you could almost call it a gimmick. This view on setting is an example of dissonance, a reaction that occurs when a key aspect of a situation is the opposite of what you expected, and it can come from nearly anything in a story: the hero, the villain, the victim, the weapon.Use setting to create tension and set the right mood. Click To Tweet
Dissonance makes a crime feel more ‘wrong’. It can heighten the reader’s reaction to a crime, making it seem more evil or more complex. It’s the same device that’s at play when horror movies present their scariest ghosts as children. We don’t think of children as threatening, but when we’re forced to, it heightens the threat. Likewise, we don’t think of certain places as dangerous, but when we’re forced to, it heightens the sense of danger.
Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan’. Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that a [gangster] will get shot… nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
– Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises
This device is most useful for people who are writing to titillate. For those trying to say something about society, crime itself or the human condition, the crime can happen anywhere. In fact the location should be chosen to suit the mood of the story; there are few locations which don’t come with their own pre-existing atmosphere.
Don’t depend on twists
Twists and turns can help grip your reader but they aren’t always essential. If a brilliant twist occurs to you then that’s great, use it, but don’t contort the story to provide an out-of-the-blue shock the reader doesn’t need; crime writing is about plunging interesting characters into a game of life and death.
A good crime writer needs a few tricks, of course, but character is everything.
– Mark Billingham
Pulling the rug out from under your reader can be great, but too many authors sacrifice the believability of their narrative because they think it’s a must. Ian McEwan’s novel Sweet Tooth is a gripping read, spoiled for some readers by what could be viewed as an unnecessary final twist which has little effect on the story’s conclusion.
Authors aren’t (usually) criminals, so writing a realistic account of crime and detection is going to require a bit of research. Thankfully, there’s a big difference between knowing what you’re talking about and researching enough to fake it.
Your story should feel realistic to the layman, but you don’t need to worry about upsetting experts. No level of detail will satisfy the truly in-the-know, but criminal procedure shows are so popular that the average reader is more clued up than you might think.Do enough research to create realism for the average reader, but don't worry about experts.Click To Tweet
As a general rule, the more important something is to your story, the more thoroughly you should research it. If DNA comes back inconclusive, then you don’t have to know much about how it works, but if planted DNA is part of your villain’s master plan, then you’re going to have to elaborate.
Tom Clancy writes for a readership who have a more than average appreciation for the facts behind criminal activity. In Clear and Present Danger he adds realism by avoiding popular, under-researched representations of computer hacking and instead having a protagonist require hours to guess the correct password to a file using the victim’s personal information.
The usual suspects
Whatever your readers want from their crime fiction, they’re unlikely to get it without well-written, compelling characters. It can be tempting to get swept up in the crime itself but remember your plot needs to be absorbing as well as clever.
The reader needs to care what happens before they can truly enjoy how it happens. Unnecessary twists will hurt that and lead you into cliché. Although crime fiction can be a highly formulaic (the chase has a definite pattern to it) it’s down to you to make that formula as fresh as possible.
Crime fiction rewards skilled writers extensively. Whether you’re writing a harrowing gangland story or a cheeky heist, readers will be ready and eager to jump headfirst into the narrative. In crime fiction, perhaps more than any other genre, you simply need to give readers an excuse to immerse themselves.
For tips on writing crime and conflict check out our article Here’s How to Write a Damn Good Fight Scene. Or for the kind of criminal your reader can’t get enough of, try Here’s How to Give your Antagonist a Little Oomph.
Are you writing a crime story, or are you an accomplished bank robber who likes to boast? Either way, let us know in the comments below.