How To Write A Crime Novel Worth Reading

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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

The crime is the hook, but your characters are the meat of the story. It can be tempting to make your hero and villain servants to the action, but the chase is only interesting if the characters are.

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.


14 thoughts on “How To Write A Crime Novel Worth Reading”

    1. I have a deep and rich antagonist and protagonist in mind. Crimes are compelling and dark. I even have a darker protagonist that gets caught up in the crimes. My issue is keeping the procedurals and the side characters interesting. Any posts I could learn from. This will be my first attempt at writing fiction.

  1. What if you place the reader in the midst of the “unknown perpetrators” just after they’ve committed the murder in the prologue? The story then backtracks to introduce the main characters and the small town in which the crime has taken place.

    Would that work?

    1. Hi Stacy,

      Because the murder is central to any crime novel, I would recommend including it in Chapter 1 as opposed to the Prologue. Aside from the fact that not everyone reads the Prologue (which in turn means that some of your readers will miss the actual murder), a Prologue needs to be written in a way that the rest of the story will make sense without it.

      It’s absolutely okay to place the reader in the midst of the unknown perpetrators, as long as you are able to maintain the suspense and element of surprise in the story. In other words, you need to write the story in a way that keeps the readers guessing and allows the readers to piece the clues together (that’s half the fun of reading a crime novel).

      I hope this helps! Good luck.

  2. Hello,

    Thank you, for all of the wonderful advice that you have provided here. I was wandering what your thoughts on writing the novel in the same setting as your home town? Like, do you think it would be a good idea to use your own hometown as the setting for a novel? I really appreciate all of your advice and tips. I am a huge fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series and those books are the very reason I want to get into writing crime. Well, that and my love for writing of course. Any advice or help that you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Richard,

      To be honest I don’t think there’s an objective answer to your question: opinions will be divided depending on what people have read, and how they felt about it. That said, in my own opinion it’s rarely a good idea to set your novel in your hometown for one simple reason.

      That reason is that as a storyteller, an author needs to undergo a constant process of checking their work for assumptions. They need to make sure that the things they know, as someone who understands everything about the story and characters, are successfully communicated to their readers. It’s a process I discuss in more detail in the article below:


      Basically, however, all authors are blind to at least a few of their assumptions. Beta readers and editors can help you root out these problems and fix their consequences, but there’ll always be a few issues that need this treatment. The problem with setting a story in your hometown is that it adds a huge pile of assumptions to the few that already exist.

      Your understanding of the setting, your own emotional connections, your knowledge of history or local quirks, all have the potential to turn on you without you realising it. For example Alan Garner’s ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ uses a lot of geographical features of Alderley Edge, an area of England. These are frequently mentioned in reverential tones, but often the context of what these things look like in real life is assumed. It’s easy to believe that the majesty of a waterfall speaks for itself when you’ve seen it with your own eyes, but often that belief will impair your instinct to properly communicate that majesty to the reader.

      Another, safer, option is to go the same route as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, where the real county of Lancashire is used as inspiration for the fictional region of Lancre. Pratchett uses the region’s history of witches and some geographical features, but by placing them in the context of a fictional world he never loses the impulse to properly describe them to the reader.

      I hope that was helpful, and good luck with your writing.


  3. I love reading a mystery as well. So, much that I have wrote one myself. If you would ever like to read it then it’s on and Createspace Estore. The name of it is “There are Two Faces to Every Story.”

  4. How do you write a protagonist that has a split personality? The person that kills the victim and the other who don’t do the crime?

  5. I liked reading this article I was set up on murder in Oregon and my ex girlfriend was killed.. the clues and facts along with the police and courts are hard to put in a story timeline.. the issue is when did I learn this or that … and how did that shape the continue idea I was set up… anyways if someone likes to write find me.. thanks

  6. In my story the criminal is revealed right off the bat. He’s known right away to the reader and to the protagonist and everyone else in the British Isles because the criminal used to be a famous psychologist and inventor. So it’s really just a matter of chasing him down. More of a “howcatchem” than a “whodunit”.

  7. Crime - Mystery Writer

    Hi, this was an interesting read. Would also appreciate if you can suggest some latest crime fiction, murder mysteries to read, if one wants to write another widely accepted best seller.


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