Crime fiction, regardless of the format – whether a short story, a novella, or a novel, comes in two forms: the protagonist will either solve a crime, or commit one.
In the first type, i.e. solving a crime, we follow the protagonist as they use their brain and their skills to figure out who did the crime or what happened. In the second type of crime stories, we follow the protagonist as they commit the crime, and this type can have two subtypes: the crime happens in the beginning (i.e. first part or act), and the second part focuses on the fallout, or, the protagonist decides to do the crime in the first part, and either goes through with it or not in the second part.
Considering that today we are focusing solely on crime short stories, rather than fiction, the tips below on how to write a crime short story will all be related to writing shorter pieces of work, and they might not work for longer pieces like novellas or novels.
1. Keep your audience in mind
Considering the two types of crime fiction we’ve highlighted above, it is worth noting that while there are omnivorous crime readers, i.e. those who enjoy reading about the solving of a crime just as much as they would enjoy reading about the protagonist committing a crime; quite often, the audience for one type is not the audience for the other one.
The readers who prefer to read solving a crime might not enjoy reading about committing one. So before you embark on the wonderful journey of writing a short story, think carefully about which audience you wish to target and attract.
2. Have a clear theme and idea
Often, short stories do not have the time to elaborate on all the nuances of a certain theme or idea. Practically speaking, a short story does not allow you to dwell longer in the life of the protagonist. Regardless of what type of story you are writing (committing a crime vs. solving a crime), due to the nature of those two events, you would not be writing a short story that spans over several years.
The longer a crime goes unsolved, the more difficult it would be to solve it. This type of urgency is what drives crime novels, let alone short stories. So, the clearer your theme and original idea, the better – for it would allow you to distill it to its essence and present it, in as short manner as possible, in your story.
3. Keep it short
We’re not talking here about trying to say as much as possible in as few words as possible. When it comes to writing crime short stories, you do not need to dwell on the protagonist’s backstory. If he is an experienced detective, there is no need for the reader to know all the details about all of his previous cases to convince them that this detective knows what he is doing – show that in the procedures and the actions he takes to solve the crime, but also in how he reacts to seeing this particular crime.
If your protagonist is somebody who is willing to commit a crime, try to convey their motivations as shortly as possible. The readers do not need to know all the details that led or will lead them to commit the crime, just enough to sympathize with them or, alternatively, find the protagonist compelling enough to follow them to the end.
4. Create a believable crime
In longer works like novellas and novels, you need to create such a crime that will take someone a whole novel to solve. In short stories, specifically short stories that are focused on solving a crime, the crime needs to be out of the ordinary, but the protagonist should still be able to solve it in an “a-ha” moment, that would both make sense to the reader in retrospect, and also surprise them at the same time. If your story is about committing a crime, the crime itself needs to be relatively easy for the protagonist to commit. The planning has already been done and it’s all about the execution and the consequences.
In the second type of crime stories, where the protagonist decides to commit the crime and we follow them as they either go through with it or not, the crime itself needs have a certain psychological effect on the protagonist. Additionally, it should be more difficult to commit and pose a certain danger to them as well.
5. Create a compelling protagonist
The protagonist who solves the crime needs to have the tools and experience to do so. You make that protagonist compelling by how they react to the crime that has been committed, and then what steps they take to solve the crime, as well as what motivates them to solve the crime so quickly.
The protagonist who commits the crime, on the other hand, will be more difficult to create in a compelling manner. This type of protagonist either has to be easy to both sympathize and empathize with, like for example, a person who has been hurt in some way looking for revenge, or, they would be a kind of person who most people would find abhorring, and, they would follow that person just to see whether they get what is coming to them or not (the ending, of course, depends on the message you’re trying to send, stemming from your original idea and theme).
6. Determine the timeline of the crime
Short stories do not have the time to focus on cold cases that have not seen progress in years unless there is new evidence that would help the detective solve a cold case quickly. As such, the crime should be recent enough that there is fresh evidence for the protagonist to work with.
When it comes to the second type, committing a crime, the protagonist needs to be at the right moment to commit the crime. For example, let’s say that a woman is trying to kidnap her own child, who is currently in the custody of the ex-husband who abused her for years. Fearing for the safety of the baby, we do not need to see her stalking her ex-husband and her child for weeks on end; we need to tune in right at the moment when the woman is watching her ex-husband’s new girlfriend take the child to the park, who leaves the kid on the swings and steps aside to take a phone call, and the woman grabs her child and leaves.
7. Different types of subgenres in solving a crime
The first type of crime stories, where the protagonist is solving a crime, are divided into several subgenres (or subcategories):
- Whodunit: this is the most famous type, where the protagonist needs to solve the problem of who committed the crime (theft, murder, etc.,) from a certain list of suspects. The protagonist is usually a detective or a private investigator. A specialized subset of whodunit is locked room – where the crime has been committed in a locked room with no way in or out, so the suspects have all been present at the murder/crime scene.
- Cozy mystery: similar to whodunit, with the sole difference that the protagonist is most often a woman with no experience in solving crime, and the setting is a small, cozy town rather than a big city.
- American noir/hardboiled crime fiction: where the protagonist, in the course of solving the crime, runs into personal danger. Darker themes like abuse, sex, and violence are at the forefront of these stories.
- Police procedural and forensic crime: the protagonists are members of the police or a forensic team, like pathologists, and either use standard police procedures to solve the crime, or forensic tools, respectively.
8. Subgenres based on committing a crime
When it comes to committing a crime, while there are two basic subtypes of stories, there are two main subgenres:
- Caper stories: opposite of whodunit and procedural stories, the protagonists are criminals who are trying to evade capture of legal authorities – after they had committed the crime, or they commit the crime in the first part of the story.
- Heist stories: they always revolve around theft, often grand theft in museums or casinos, and the protagonists are trying to commit the crime by the end of the story.
9. Connect the theme and the subgenre
The theme, or, the point you want your reader to take in while reading the story, needs to directly dictate the type of subgenre you are going to use, and so will the nature of your protagonist. A mother trying to get revenge for the death of her child will most probably not be trying to rob a bank or a casino. A con man looking for his big score (moneywise), who is trying to keep himself out of prison, will not be so willing to murder the guards of the Hope Diamond.
10. Use a certain balance of humor
Short stories, by nature, need to have a certain sense of lightness that would make it easy for the reader to lose themselves in the story. Even stories that deal with darker themes like violence and abuse need to have the narrative deliver the same lightness that makes it easy for the readers to absorb what is happening. Humor is one of the best tools to use in the narrative to make the story lighter for the reader to take in.
However, some themes are more serious, and using excessive humor, for example, in a short story of a mother trying to get revenge and kill the murderer of her dead child, humor would not be welcome. Humor helps to make stories “read” or “feel” softer, but it would also take the reader away from such a dramatic and traumatic story. The only possible type of humor acceptable in such a story might be sarcasm or irony, but even that should be used sparingly and only if sarcasm is a strong element of the protagonist’s personality.
On the other hand, heist stories, whodunit stories, and cozy mysteries would highly benefit from the use of humor. Humor can make any story better, as long as it is used in a manner appropriate for the theme and the point that you are trying to make with it.