Are you writing a crime thriller novel? Do you need some inspiration? Check out the 31 crime thriller writing prompts below!
General Crime Thriller Prompts
1. A ransom note arrives with only 48 hours to pay. But who’s been kidnapped?
The thrill of this story prompt is in the high pace of having only 48 hours to discover the crime and prevent from getting worse (through murder or injury). This will move your story quite quickly but also opens up to doing a lot of flashbacks to explain connections or discovered clues.
2. A criminal partner has been captured by a rival gang. Can they be rescued before it’s too late?
Like the prompt above, there’s a time pressure in this story prompt to prevent the partner (be it family, friend, lover) from getting hurt. Depending on the crime, you can really ramp up the thrill by forcing the main character to complete other crimes in exchange for their partner or as a way of getting to their partner (think of the films Taken or Gone in 60 Seconds)
3. After standing up to the local mob, a man must protect himself and his family from their vengeance.
The thrill here comes from the reader wondering whether the man will succeed in saving himself from the mobsters. The crime comes from not only the mob but also whatever crimes the man will have to commit to keep his and his family’s safety.
4. Having just returned from prison, a notorious safe cracker is called upon to help with another big heist.
The crime in this story prompt IS the story, so the thrill comes from whether or not they succeed in their heist. That might come from deciding whether the safe cracker wants to continue on with a life of crime or if they want to retire at the end.
5. A hoard of drugs has gone missing, and the local criminal must find them before he’s blamed for their disappearance.
Put your main character in peril from the start: the mobster threatens their life even though they had nothing to do with the disappearance. This raises the stakes from the start and gives your main character investment in discovering something they wouldn’t normally care about. For a bit of a twist, you could always have them double-cross the mobster and become the new drug lord.
6. After three low-level goons rob the casino of an upper-level mobster, the mobster’s second-in-command must track them down and make them pay.
This is a bit like a detective story but because the investigator isn’t a police officer, there’s scope for way more crime. You could do a lot with this one by exploring character motivations: why did the goons need the money; why did they choose that mobster; what will happen when they are found.
7. A man walks into a police station claiming to be a missing child from twenty years before. He escaped his captor and wants to stop the kidnapping from happening again.
This is a good prompt if you want to work with flashbacks or unreliable characters. Is the man telling the truth? If he is, what child or children are due to be kidnapped next? How can the kidnapping be stopped?
8. A local police detective must go deep undercover to stop a host of recent bank robberies. But does he go too far?
This prompt is good if you want to write about criminals as people and focus more on their relationships than the crime itself. The thrill comes from whether the police detective will stay true to himself as a police officer or if he will prioritize his new friendships.
9. The police station has been receiving cryptic notes referring to a series of murders. But no murders matching the description have been discovered.
What makes this prompt so interesting is both the code-breaking element of the cryptic clues and the discovery of the murders themselves. You could also potentially have the clues referencing murders that are about to happen so that the story eventually becomes about them preventing murders rather than discovering them.
10. A man goes missing but the clues to his disappearance are not what they seem.
What makes this an open prompt is the reason the clues to his disappearance don’t match up. Did he fake his own death? Did he get involved in something secret? Are his family suspects or are they at risk? Making the family in danger might add a bit more ‘crime’ to this crime thriller.
11. During a family reunion on a secluded island, family members start turning up dead. Why? And who’s next?
A bit like a ‘whodunit,’ this story prompt focuses on the family working together to solve the crime of who’s next and how to stop it. Be sure to keep having family members pop up dead or injured to keep the ‘thrill’ alive throughout.
12. After a new couple moves in down the street, a neighbor discovers a note seemingly from the wife of the new couple, crying for help. Except she denies it.
The thrill here is both criminal and psychological as the main character (ideally the neighbor who discovered the note) must decide two things: if the wife is telling the truth and what is happening to whoever did write the note. There is potential for a lot of intrigue and red herrings.
13. An airplane pilot who has been smuggling drugs for a drug lord discovers they’re being framed for missing drugs and money.
For this prompt, focus on the pilot delving into the drug world in order to prove their innocence. Have them initially work on discovering who is framing them and uncovering their guilt to the drug lord before the pilot themselves gets killed.
14. A teen is the sole survivor of a gangland hit on their whole family. They must fight back or risk being murdered themselves.
If you really want to ramp up the ‘crime’ element of this prompt, have the teen start training to seek revenge on those who murdered the family. They must find their way into the dark underbelly of their city to get advice and training. The question then becomes will they commit the crime or die trying?
15. Only one member of a gang of criminals is left alive after a mass execution. Who ordered it and are they next?
This crime thriller can be told as it unfolds or through a series of flashbacks by the survivor. In either case, the thrill should be in discovering what they were doing together and why they were all murdered in the first place.
16. Trapped into helping an assassin, a man must decide if and how to stop the hitman from murdering again.
How you trap these two people together will determine how the story unfolds. Make sure the assassin is committing crimes throughout the story so the thrill for the reader comes in wondering which crime will be that step too far for the man.
17. A group of criminals have had an unexpected run-in with the cops and now must work to discover who ratted them out.
The thrill of this crime story comes in discovering there’s a mole in their midst and figuring out who it is. Have your characters commit further crimes (kidnapping, torture, etc) to find this mole, then make the discovery a real twist at the end.
18. A girl is found murdered in a ritualistic manner. It’s clear that she’s not the first, nor will she be the last.
To add to the reader’s suspense, explore the supernatural element to make this more of a thriller. Have your main characters be investigating the murder and the ritualistic clues lead them ever deeper into a strange cult nobody knew was operating before.
19. Two criminals have made a bet over who can commit the most heinous and public crime to become famous. Can they be stopped?
This can start out as a garden variety police procedural until the bet is discovered. Then, the thrill becomes wondering which one can be stopped first before it gets out of control.
20. A band of criminals come together for one last heist: a casino.
Spend a few chapters at the beginning of your story building the band of criminals and exploring why they want to rob this particular casino. Spend the rest on the thrill of the heist and whether they’ll succeed.
21. One job. Fifty assassins. Who will win?
Exploring the motivations and methods of all fifty characters would really make this an interesting and thrilling crime story. Why are they all battling for this one job? Who wins and why?
22. People start going missing after the new neighbor moves in next door.
Why the neighbor is abducting people will really set the tone for the rest of this story. Spend a good chunk of your story trying to discover that then the second half needs be whether your main character can stop them.
Historical Crime Thriller Prompts
23. In 1920s Louisiana, bootleggers across the state are coming up murdered. Who’s next and will they be stopped?
If you choose to have the police investigate this, then you can include a sense of ‘should we really help save the criminals’ that a lot of police had at this time. This will add a sense of purpose to your main character (who should want to discover the answer) and give them a reason for diving into the dark world of Prohibition-era bootlegging.
24. A series of seemingly unrelated deaths in Victorian England all start to seem strangely related, with hints of future deaths to come.
This prompt is less ‘whodunit’ and more ‘discovering the gritty underworld of Victorian aristocracy.’ It’s not the murders themselves that should be the focus but where investigating leads your main character to explore: secret societies, fetish clubs, black market trades. Think Jack the Ripper but bigger.
25. It’s the 1960s, and a rich, young heiress falls to her death during a raucous party in New York City. What seems a harmless accident results in the discovery of a strange and interwoven world of drugs, sex, and murder.
This is a lot like the prompt above but with a focus on the art world of the 1960s. You could also choose to explore some of the ‘old money’ families that might be losing their grip on society and the economy as the world changes.
26. During the 1980s Cold War, a Russian operative is arrested and admits a nuclear bomb is heading towards a major city. But which one?
Start with the Russian operative already arrested and have them state this fact to the investigators. Then, spend the rest of the story with your characters under high pressure, trying to get more information out of them while also trying to find the bomb before it goes off.
Romantic Crime Thriller Prompts
27. After discovering the body of a woman in the woods, two small-town amateur detectives fall in love while avoiding danger and intrigue in discovering who the murderer is and who’s next.
Have the two detectives only realize their love for each other as they discover some major break in the case, which leads to them being targeted by the murderer. This will raise the stakes by having the love and their lives at stake while they work to solve the crime.
28. While trying to protect a prostitute from being killed, a man falls deeply in love with her and goes to the depths to protect her.
To keep this a ‘crime thriller,’ make sure the focus of the story is keeping the woman from being killed by a criminal of some kind. Just add bits of romantic intrigue and flirtatious dialogue here and there to show their connection and why they fall in love by the end.
29. A couple falls in love and goes on a nationwide crime spree.
This story focuses more on whether the couple gets away with the crimes they commit (because of their love) or whether they are stopped at some point. How romantic you want your story will largely depend on how you want it to end: they both get away, only one of them gets away (and forever misses their love), or they both die tragically together, doing what they love (like Bonnie and Clyde).
30. While investigating a murder, the investigator falls in love with the only witness. And only suspect, too.
What makes this such a thriller is in keeping the reader in the dark about whether the love interest is the killer or not. And if they are, does the investigator choose them or their duty to the law at the end?
31. A man marries a corrupt businessman’s daughter. Is it love or is it revenge?
The crime element of this prompt is around whether the man is planning some sort of attack on the businessman. The thrill is in whether he will get caught. The romantic subplot comes from exploring whether he will allow himself to truly fall in love with the woman he married or whether his revenge will win.