Welcome to Writing Tips Oasis and our newest guide – this time around, on Crime Fiction.
Crime Fiction as a genre is often confused or mixed up with other genres or its own subgenres/categories, like mysteries, which we will talk about later. The Crime genre is an umbrella that entails everything that is related to a crime: from mysteries to thrillers, although in thrillers, the crime is often ongoing, while in crime fiction, the crime is already perpetrated and the protagonist is looking for the perpetrator. For that reason, we will look at thriller as a separate genre that crosses with crime, rather than as a part of the crime genre as a whole.
On the whole, we will divide this guide in three parts. In the first part, we will focus on the crime itself, because that will define the category (or subgenre) of your novel. The second part will focus on the plot of a crime fiction novel, and the third part will focus on how to build a crime puzzle.
Without further delay, let’s move on to the first part and try to tackle the task of writing a crime fiction novel.
Table of Contents
- Part One: The Crime
- 1. What crime fiction encompasses
- 2. Choosing the crime
- 3. Crime fiction categories
- Part Two: Building the Crime Plot
- 1. Choosing a protagonist
- 2. Creating the world
- 3. Portraying secondary characters
- 4. Creating ambiance and mood
- 5. Balancing plot and character
- 6. Twists and resolutions
- Part Three: Building the Crime Puzzle
- 1. How to create a crime puzzle
- 2. Usage of unreliable narrators
- 3. Using foreshadowing
- 4. Creating the usual suspects cast
- 5. Red herrings and Chekov’s guns
- 6. Avoiding clichés
- 7. Avoiding plot traps
Part One: The Crime
The crime is the most important element of a good crime fiction novel. Although, it’s worth noting that the crime, in this case, comes after compelling plot and characters, which are necessary for any kind of novel. The crime in a crime fiction novel, however, needs to provide two things:
- interest in the readers as to how it was done;
- interest in a compelling protagonist who will solve the mystery for the readers.
Here is the thing, you can have a compelling protagonist and interesting characters (upon which we will talk extensively in the second part of this guide), but unless you have an extraordinary crime, you are not giving your protagonist and characters anything to work with. For that reason, let’s start by distilling all the separate elements of crime fiction novels before we move on to creating one.
1. What crime fiction encompasses
The list of what a crime fiction novel needs, or what the crime fiction in general encompasses, can be way too long. For that reason, let’s begin by analyzing what a crime fiction novel provides for the readers.
First, we mentioned the compelling protagonist and interesting characters. The compelling protagonist is usually a detective/investigator/agent in a secret/clandestine organization, usually a government institution, and in legal organizations like PI agencies or various different police departments. That means your protagonist will be the readers eyes and ears (and emotions) in the legal process.
The interesting characters fall into different categories. First category is victim/eyewitness, the second is the bad guys (or just one bad guy) among many suspects, all of which need to have motive to perpetrate the crime, the means to do it, and finally, alibis or lack of them, which leads to the protagonist investigating these people in order to find out what happened. The thing about these characters is that they become the readers’ mediums for experiencing what it’s like to be an eyewitness or to be a suspect in a crime (and as much as we like to say that the world has become a horrible place, most people don’t actually want to be eyewitnesses or suspects in a crime. For this reason, crime fiction along with romance are among the best-selling genres in the world – they provide escapism for the readers in realms that they don’t particularly want to visit).
Third is the crime itself. Here is the thing: a crime that is easily solved by the protagonist will be even more easily solved by your readers, most of which will be crime fiction fans, and if you write in a crime that can be easily solved, the readers will lose interest.
Next in line are ambiance, setting, worldbuilding, and the way that you handle them need to fall in line with the story you want to tell.
2. Choosing the crime
And by choosing the crime, we don’t really mean decide if your novel is going to revolve around a murder or a theft, for example. Nor do we mean decide if the protagonist is going to be a man or a woman. What we mean is the crime as a whole: what (murder, theft, kidnapping, etc.) it is, who did it, who will investigate it, and how will they go about it. These three things will decide in which crime category (or subgenre) your story will belong in. And these categories have their own markers that the readers will expect, and knowing that gives you, as a writer, the chance to subvert their expectations and surprise them.
Moreover it will keep you from making rookie mistakes, like for example, having a spunky 22-year-old private eye investigate someone’s murder instead of a detective, going to morgues and other places, investigate witnesses and so forth. A private eye will never have the authority to investigate someone’s murder. When private eyes are hired to investigate someone’s murder, it means that the police have closed the case and have been unable to solve it, or have locked up an innocent man or a woman as the perpetrator. However, a private eye would not investigate the murder right after it happened. Unless the private eye is closely related to the victim, which would give her a personal motive.
And so forth. A spunky 22-year-old female private eye as the protagonist will shoot your novel straight into the chick-lit crime mystery pile, or the cozy mystery. On the other hand, make the woman a little older, late twenties, for example, and make her a legit investigator, and then you have a crime novel that would belong in a different subgenre, like legal or police.
In conclusion, the category your story will belong in will ultimately be decided by your story itself. Deciding on a category before starting to write your will enable you to:
- read other novels in the same/similar subgenre, enabling you to know the most common expectations and plots;
- outline your novel, so you do not end up involving psychics to give your protagonist clues to the antagonist;
- find ways to subvert known clichés and tropes and storylines.
Let’s take a look at the most common categories or subgenres of crime fiction and their expectations and common themes.
3. Crime fiction categories
There are many different subgenres or categories when it comes to crime fiction. Some of these are more prolific than the others. For example, we can look at mystery as a separate genre, as well as detective, and thriller as well. All of these, however, involve two things: crime and the legal system, and protagonists who need to solve the case, no matter what.
The mystery genre is easy to describe. Everything starts with the perpetration of a crime: someone has been murdered, or something has been stolen. A good mystery will involve both, for example. Then, the investigator comes along and begins to investigate the crime. Your job as the writer here is to throw hurdles and obstacles at the protagonist, even go as far as to make it personal for the protagonist to solve the case to provide more motivation. In addition, you need a cast of the usual suspects, and the more unusual you can make them, the better. The faker their alibis, the better. However, be careful not to make everyone fake their alibis just for the sake of it. Red herrings are fine as long as they do pay off in some way. Keep the readers engaged by creating a mystery that seems impossible to solve at a first glance.
One of the best things about the crime fiction genre is the possible overlap within its categories, as well as the possible mixing of crime with different genres. A detective crime fiction novel always features a detective who is most often investigating a homicide. Along the way he has to go through many obstacles in order to get to the truth, and if he is dealing with a serial killer/a ring of organized crime, the bodies will continue to drop. And even the seemingly natural death of the victim’s neighbor turns out to be a murder. There are two things to be careful of: if there are too many murders and victims, your readers might get lost in the details. Second, if the murder is too complicated to be solved, you might fall into the deus-ex-machina trap. In addition, you don’t want to make the murder too simple – that would make your detective not up to his job.
- Thriller (as cross-genre)
A good example of a thriller and crime fiction mix is a novel that revolves, for example, around a kidnapping. The reason why we’re looking a thriller novel as a separate genre is because usually, a thriller novel happens while the crime is being committed. It’s a conflict between the villain and the victim, and, if the victim loses, that’s when the legal department becomes involved. That fact, by default, separates the crime genre and the thriller genre.
However, for example, if the police are involved and trying to prevent a serial killer from committing another murder, and if the novel also focuses on the serial killer’s next victim to be (who he probably has already kidnapped), then you have a novel that is both crime and thriller.
Police procedural fiction novels revolve around a police department that’s trying to solve a crime. Usually, you have the cast of a detective (who may or may not have a partner, who may or may not be a sidekick), a couple of forensics and at least one pathologist, and maybe even additional lab people like a toxicologist, etc. The crime and the perpetrator are usually shown in a prologue, and the readers follow the story of the police department solving the crime. Police procedural fiction allows a glimpse into the world of the police and the story is more about how to catch the murderer through evidence and investigation.
Legal crime fiction novels are a specific subgenre of crime novels. They still involve the same elements of crime fiction: a crime has been committed, and an organization is involved in solving that crime. This time, that organization is the legal department. This means that the action is all in the court room, and usually, the conflict revolves around a lawyer trying to prove that the accused is innocent of the crime, sometimes to the extent of solving the mystery and finding the real murderer, putting himself or herself and their close friends or coworkers in danger.
- Locked room
Again, there are many overlaps in crime fiction categories, and the locked room mystery is one of them. It can overlap easily with all the other subgenres. All it needs is to have a crime committed in a locked room (though not necessarily an empty one). This means that the perpetrator could not have easily come and gone from the scene of the crime. What really sets this subgenre apart is the impossibility of the crime. They almost always revolve around a murder, and the readers are presented with the same puzzle – the locked room – as the detective. The puzzle is what entices the readers to read more, hence the major overlap with other subcategories, from detective to legal to cozy mysteries.
- Cozy mystery
What sets the cozies – or cozy mysteries – apart is the setting and the ambiance. The violence is toned down, and the murders are usually through poisons or other means, and the motive is almost always personal. Another element that sets them apart is the protagonist, who in this case can be anyone within a community. Usually, the cozies are set in small towns in scenic locations, where the ambiance plays just as big of a role as the characters themselves. The protagonist is usually in a position to solve the mystery: a sheriff, a librarian, a doctor – someone who will have a lot of contact with almost all of the people in the community.
Whodunit refers to the subgenre of crime fiction where the plot revolves solely around discovering who murdered someone. As with other categories, the protagonist is the detective who is investigating the crime, and the usual suspects are making difficult to tell, well, whodunit.
There are other categories of crime fiction. Chick-lit mysteries, where the protagonist is a female, hardboiled crime fiction, where a cop in the Prohibition era has to deal with both the crime gangs and the crooked crime system, the caper crime fiction, where it’s more about committing a petty crime (theft) and getting away with it, and many other categories.
Part Two: Building the Crime Plot
Many different writers define plot in different ways: we all know it when a novel has a tight plot, and when the plot is not right, all readers know it. Here is the thing – plot is what your story depends on. You can think of plotting a novel as putting all elements of one story into a linear grid and knowing which event of the plot happens when in the novel. You can have a good story, but if you don’t put each element of it in its proper place in the grid, you have a jumbled novel with a very loose plot.
A well balanced structure will have three acts: the exposition, or act 1, which is the beginning of your novel. During this part, your protagonist needs to be introduced to the problem. In the case of crime novels, regardless of category, the problem will always be a certain crime – murder, theft, both, or something else. You have created a situation – a problem, and now the protagonist has to solve it.
In the real world, whenever we face a problem, we go for the easiest solution. It’s human nature to take the shortest path to solve a problem. When your protagonist decides to go for the easiest solution to the crime leads you to the first plot point – where the easiest solution to the problem – the easiest explanation for the crime – is actually not right.
However, not all is lost, for the protagonist – be it a detective, an investigator, a private eye – will have other clues to follow. The continued investigation in the case is what will make up the second act of your novel. The second act is very important because here you will present the readers with two things: one, what your novel is really about, and how the protagonist managed to solve the crime and discover who did it. Often, the closer the protagonist is to the truth, the more in danger he or she will be (or their loved ones, like friends and family). Someone – usually the villain, or depending on the connection between the protagonist and whoever committed the crime, the antagonist. The closer the connection between them, the more personal the story will get, thus increasing the stakes for all characters involved.
The closing of the second act is when the protagonist solves the crime. The third act – the resolution – is all about catching the villain, making a valiant attempt at rescuing or saving someone, and for wrapping up all the other secrets and red herrings that were bound to prop up in the first act.
In the next two parts, we will talk about everything from plotting to worldbuilding – to how to create red herrings and use other storytelling tools to plot your novel just right and give your readers a great thrill of a read.
1. Choosing a protagonist
When it comes to choosing a protagonist, we don’t really refer to making up a cast of characters and then deciding which one of them will move the plot forward. Stories often dictate who gets to tell them, and the same thing applies in this case as well. For example, you cannot tell a cozy mystery story if you choose the neighborhood gossip as the protagonist. Every category has its own share of most common protagonist. The neighborhood gossip or the old spinster that lives around the bend might get to be a protagonist of a cozy mystery novel if the crime and the perpetrator are directly connected to her. But, you can also place a dazed city detective as the new head detective in a small town and tell the story through his eyes. The detective would be a better candidate in this particular example, simply because of two reasons:
– the detective, as a newcomer, will have a great perspective on the little town, enabling you, as the writer, to fully immerse the reader inside the world you’ve built;
– the detective has more potential to change, due to the fact that he has recently moved to a new place to live. An added bonus is the fact that he is moving down in his career by moving to a small town where he is bound to have less work, which immediately poses the question as to why he would do that, hinting a dark and possibly traumatic past in the big city. (An additional added bonus is the opportunity to connect said dark traumatic past to the present mystery that the detective has been presented with).
In conclusion, by choosing your protagonist, you’re choosing what kind of a crime story you will tell. However, make sure that your protagonist is in the best position to tell a story. Due to the fact that crime fiction is all about giving the readers a taste of crime investigation, your protagonist needs to be in the best position to tell the story and give the readers that glimpse, and, in addition, make sure that the protagonist is in a good position for a change. This means ensuring that there is a certain inner conflict in the protagonist that prevents him from solving the crime. Thus, dealing with that inner conflict becomes paramount to the resolution of the story, and giving a satisfying answer to the mystery.
2. Creating the world
The creation of the world in a crime fiction novel depends, for starters, on the genre that you’ve chosen. A cozy mystery demands a small town, a police procedural novel will be more colorful and the mystery more difficult to solve if it happens in a big city. Meanwhile, you need to determine if you’re going to mix in other genres – paranormal, science fiction, medical science, or maybe even romance – which will further define the parameters of your world. For example, a paranormal crime fiction novel will need a crime that was paranormally done, and by default, you need characters that will be equipped with the right paranormal tools to solve the mystery.
However, when it comes to pure crime fiction that has not been mixed with other genres, the world is all about the crime. For this, you will need to do a lot of research into investigative procedures, and, depending on the story you want to tell, you should find people who have had personal, real experiences, either as witnesses or as investigators. And while the internet has become an enormous resource for writers, it is best if you can have real-life interviews to get a recount of such experiences in real life.
Because here is the thing: no decent investigator will fail to look for prints, clues and DNA at the scene of the crime. Of course, the best mysteries revolve around the lack of clues, prints or any kind of DNA to point the protagonist in the right direction. However, your readers will immediately catch onto an amateur investigator, and if that’s the kind of story that you want to tell, then you need to present your protagonist as an amateur from the start – and have him or her become better and better at their job as the novel progresses. On the other hand, if your characters are supposed to be experienced investigators/detectives/crime solvers, they need to act and do things that would show that, rather than have them blunder and wander around the case like amateurs.
This means that your world will be made up of two sets of characters: the protagonist and the usual cast of people who will help him or her solve the crime (fellow investigators, partners, friends, forensic people focusing on different fields that will do tests and provide the protagonist with clues coming from analysis, mentors, family members who may or may not contribute to the drama, or, in fewer words, the good guys), and the characters who are connected to the crime: suspects, victims that hide something, shady characters who may or may not be connected, and the villain and his collaborators, of course.
The protagonist will be flung into a world of laboratories, interviews with suspects, and a lot of going back and forth as he or she is trying to solve the crime. Remember, the world you will create will need to be the perfect place for the crime to be committed, but you also need to figure out the scale of the crime. Then, there is also the impact that the crime would have on an established community – a small town, a precinct, a county, or a big city neighborhood. The people from a big city neighborhood that sees crime daily will react differently to a crime than people from a small town that has not seen any crime for years.
The world needs to be consistent, especially in locations, time, and the daily life of the characters. Moreover, in most stories, the protagonist is flung into a different world than the one he knew before when he or she is introduced to the problem (in this case, the crime). However, in a crime fiction novel where the protagonist is usually a detective or an investigator, the world of crime investigation will be familiar to them, so make sure that you’re presenting the protagonist with a highly unusual case that forces him or her to go out of their comfort zone, both personally and professionally, to solve the crime, and explore a new world along the way.
3. Portraying secondary characters
Besides the protagonist, we will divide the rest of the cast into several categories.
1) The Suspects
The suspects are very important. The more suspect they are, the more difficult will it be for the protagonist to dig the truth out of them. The mistake that you might make here is to make all the suspects unwilling witnesses and unwilling to talk to the protagonist just for the sake of making things difficult. Remember, if people are shady and secretive, then there must be a good reason for it. They might be protecting something, like the existence of an affair, or maybe they were stealing money and are afraid of that fact coming into the light. Regardless, whatever it is, the secret needs to be big enough and have enough impact for the suspect to do whatever they possibly can to keep the protagonist from discovering it.
2) The Helpers
Or, people who will help the protagonist to solve the crime. The helpers can be other professionals, as we mentioned before, or they might even be family members with the right insight at the right moment. The right information at the right moment has to be delivered in a way that makes sense in the plot, otherwise you’re looking at characters who are only there to be the writer’s deus-ex-machina and help the protagonist achieve his or her goal easily. Remember, a good mystery will present obstacles even in the process of obtaining clues. The best way to bring these characters to life is to present them with clues that make matters more confusing, rather than more clear.
3) Other characters
Not all of the characters in a crime novel will be part of the suspects or the helpers group. If you keep your characters strictly into those two categories, your novel will lack color and vividness. However, make sure that you’re not creating extra family members and friends for the protagonist just to make sure that they are present in the novel. Make sure that even the side characters that are not directly related to the plot are still needed in the story.
The reason why we put the suspects as number 1 is because you need to know and develop these characters just as much as the protagonist and the villain. A decent villain has a deep reason as to why he or she is doing things, and the suspects will need an equally compelling reason and motivation to keep their secrets. When it comes to the other characters, the more you develop them as characters, the easier it will be for you to discover their voices and traits. Make sure that each character is unique – otherwise, your readers will feel like they are reading a long two-sided monologue rather than a dialogue.
4. Creating ambiance and mood
In a crime novel, there are several ways to create the right ambiance and mood.
Creating ambiance and mood in a novel begins with the right location. Choosing a beach town for a cozy mystery is a good idea, especially if the events happen during winter and you have fog rolling in from the ocean. On the other hand, if your story happens in the middle of summer in Vegas, the atmosphere will be a lot more different. The first location helps create the cozy mood needed for that type of a crime novel. The second location (Vegas), on the other hand, would be a perfect setting for a police procedural and create an ambiance of speed and thrill, helping you make the readers feel excited about where the story is going.
The pacing of a novel is important in many different ways, but here, we’re looking at pacing as a tool to create ambiance. Here is a very simple rule in pacing: action scenes demand a fast pace, which means using shorter sentences to convey the speed of the action itself. Longer sentences, on the other hand, are used to slow the pace down, to allow time for reflection, on the side of the characters. Both fast and slow pacing of a novel need to be used when creating the mood and ambiance in your story.
you can use multiple point of views in a crime novel: the protagonist, the villain, and you may even offer point-of-view chapters through the eyes of a victim. However, you need to be careful when you choose to add different PoV’s. If you follow the villain, you might reveal so much that the mystery will be obvious to the reader. This is not a good idea, unless you’re writing a story about how the villain was caught, while his or her identity is not that really important in the overall course of the story.
5. Balancing plot and character
Or, in other words, on the structure of individual scenes and how to build them. One of the easiest ways to understand scenes is to divide them into two parts. The first part of a scene is the disaster, where the protagonist tries to achieve a goal but fails. The second part of the scene is called reflection: where the protagonist faces the new problems and makes a decision and creates a new short-term, immediate goal for himself (or herself). The first part of the scene focuses on the plot (achieving a short term goal that will take the protagonist one step closer to the resolution), and the second part of the scene focuses on the protagonist’s reaction to not being able to achieve the goal (or he or she does achieve it, but that only leads to more problems that the protagonist needs to face), hence, the second part focuses on character.
What makes each story unique is the characters that are in it, not just by what happens in it. What makes characters pop and come to life are their reactions to the events that happen to them. Balancing your scenes in the form of disaster/reflection allows you to move the plot forward and to offer insight inside the protagonist’s mind, further bringing that protagonist to life.
6. Twists and resolutions
In a crime novel, the protagonist is faced with the problem of solving a crime. A twist is when the protagonist solves the crime either wrongly, or only partially. He may arrest the apprentice, but he has not arrested the master yet – and sometimes, the protagonist is not even aware of this fact. In other words, be careful not to make your twist cause the readers to believe the protagonist is incompetent. If the protagonist catches the wrong guy, then make sure that the protagonist has very compelling evidence against him.
This, however, does not mean that you need to pull of mind blowing twists in order to have a satisfying conclusion and resolution to your novel. Depending on the plot and your story, you might choose to go in one direction only to offer a twist right before the end. However, a twist is not that easy to pull off, so make sure that the twist makes sense in hindsight, and then make sure that you both hide and present all the clues leading up to it beforehand. Otherwise, the twist will not belong in the story, and can really be a havoc to the final resolution of the plot and the story.
Part Three: Building the Crime Puzzle
The crime puzzle is the puzzle you present the readers with when you present them with the crime that propels the start of the story. In other words, the more unusual the crime, the better are your chances at creating a puzzle. The reason why it’s important to treat the crime as a puzzle is because your readers will automatically do that, and as they read your novel, they will try to guess who did it. If you reveal too much, you will enable the reader to figure out who did it before your protagonist does. It’s good if this happens towards the end of the novel, however, if your readers discover by themselves that the villain is the character who seemingly randomly appears on page 15, then you have revealed way too much way too soon.
In this section, we will focus on the tools and elements that can help you build up a great puzzle in the course of the story that will be just as difficult for the reader to solve as it will be for your protagonist.
1. How to create a crime puzzle
The best crime puzzle in a novel begins with the crime itself. An unusual crime will present a better puzzle than a usual one. This does not mean that you need to go out of your way to create a crime that is out of the ordinary. For example, you can start your novel with a seemingly random shootout on the street, where the murderer decides to take his own life. Then, the puzzle that needs to be solved would be why the murderer acted that way, so the focus befalls on the murderer and the secrets he was keeping while he was alive. Not every crime needs to be committed behind locked doors without forced entry and without any immediate physical evidence besides a dead body. Often, unusual circumstances will do: a children’s Halloween party ends on a bad note when one of the children is found to have been drowned in an upstairs bathroom.
2. Usage of unreliable narrators
In a novel, anyone can be an unreliable narrator, if the writer decides so, even the protagonist. However, in a crime novel, an investigation will depend on witnesses. People might have been at the crime scene, or nearby, and they may or may have not heard or seen something. That’s when you get the opportunity to use unreliable witnesses. Their unreliability can be a result of many reasons, which means that the unreliability must be a part of their character. Maybe someone down the alley heard something, but he is a homeless man fighting off a hangover, and his recalling of events is not ideal. He may have seen a man when in fact he was looking at a really tall woman, for example.
However, remember that here, we are talking about building a crime puzzle. Unreliable narrators do not always lie – but make sure that your unreliable witnesses do offer some useful clues. Otherwise, you will have both your protagonist and your readers stumbling about in the dark trying to solve a crime without any real clues whatsoever.
3. Using foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a tricky tool to use in a novel, because it always needs a pay-off. You cannot foreshadow a big showdown between a corrupt system in the city and a small-time investigator without delivering on it.
In addition, you might foreshadow too much – so much that your foreshadowing has become foretelling, or, letting know your readers exactly what is going to happen. Foreshadowing as a tool can be used to steer your readers in one direction through use of symbolism, only to pull the plug on them and deliver the payoff in a way that they did not expect. As a storytelling tool, you can use it to foreshadow anything from significant moments to the actual resolution of your novel, maybe even through a simple painting that the protagonist will pay minimum attention to.
4. Creating the usual suspects cast
Usually, there is a vast array of suspects in any crime novel. The more unusual the crime, the more unusual the suspect list will be. In fact, the crime might even cause the protagonist to look in unusual places for the perpetrator. In the example of the Halloween party from above, depending on the age of the children, the suspect list might range from teenagers who were at the party to the elderlies. This is the moment when the protagonist chooses which suspects to discard as the possible criminals, and which ones to keep investigating.
This means that among the suspects, there will always be some who will be discarded: due to a strong alibi, or because of other reasons, like lack of physical health. It’s not necessary for the protagonist to discard the real criminal as a suspect, but when that happens, the suspect is revealed in a twist at the end.
However, in order to create a better crime puzzle, the serious suspects need to have a motive to commit the crime, the means (physical strength, location, etc.), and proximity to the crime scene. In addition, they need to keep their secrets close and be unwilling to tell the truth when they’re being interrogated. Some might keep secrets that can put them in jail, others can keep secrets because of other reasons. But, like all the other tools, the use of unreliability in characters needs to be sparse and limited to when it’s really needed.
5. Red herrings and Chekov’s guns
Red herrings are clues that you place in the novel in order to steer the protagonist and the reader in the wrong direction. Red herrings are your best friend when you want to write a novel with a good twist at the end. Here is the deal about red herrings: they mustn’t be too obvious, but they also need to be effective. A red herring that is too obvious will make the protagonist look incompetent when he follows it. On the other hand, the red herring is useless if the reader and the protagonist completely miss it.
The elements that actually should be missed – or not paid much attention to – are the Chekhov’s guns. The rule of Chekhov’s gun is easy to remember: if you introduce a gun in the first act of your novel, by the end of the third act, that gun needs to fire a bullet. However, the bigger the introduction of the Chekhov’s gun, the more obvious their firing will be. For that reason, it’s best to introduce these elements as minimally as possible, and then when the gun does fire off, it’s both a surprise for the readers.
6. Avoiding clichés
Like all other genres, the crime genre is also filled with tropes, situations, twists, resolutions, and character clichés. There are many common ones that appear in almost all crime fiction novels.
– The estranged wife – the detective is such a workaholic that all he ever thinks about is the job – the crime, the missing person, the theft – and he almost never sees the kids, he never pays attention to their home anymore. They may be divorced, if they’re not, they probably will by the end of the novel.
– The hospital situation – a key witness has been so severely injured that the doctors are not sure if he or she is going to survive. The detective has to go to a hospital to check on the witness, all the while dodging and dealing with family members who are outraged that all that the detective cares about is solving the crime.
(The above two examples offer a very good glimpse into the rule of clichés: once you start, it’s easy to build a cliché on top of a cliché until your whole novel ends up being nothing more than a string of clichés – which does not guarantee you a big audience)
– The good cop/bad cop combo – often seen in police procedural, a suspect or a witness is being interrogated by two cops, one of whom is playing bad cop. A good subversion of this cliché is when the two partners consciously decide to play those roles for a reason (maybe to manipulate a manipulative suspect), however, if you’re going to use this cliché, then maybe you need to rethink the whole story.
– The veteran gets a new rookie partner – and from then on, you can continue building on top of the clichés: the partner might throw up at his first autopsy, he might feel too much empathy for other people, something the gruff, old, veteran detective cannot stand anymore because the streets have hardened him.
The danger with clichés is that you will easily start building on them. The best way to avoid clichés is to first recognize them, and then turn them over. Make the rookie be able to deal with anything, while the older detective is tired of all the evil he has seen. Make the rookie reckless and get into danger, while still managing to solve a crime, reminding the old grizzled detective that the cause they’re fighting for is noble and brings good. There are many ways to subvert a cliché with a little thinking outside of the box. The more you apply it, the easier it will be for you to detect clichés during the writing of your novel and subvert them in interesting ways.
7. Avoiding plot traps
Here is what happens when you fall into a plot trap – i.e when you write a crime that is proving to be impossible to solve. First, you might get stuck during the writing process and may have to fall back on deus-ex-machina to solve your problem, or, to fall back on another gem: when stuck, have a gunman come in and stir things up. If you need a gunman to come in to stir things up, then you’re in trouble, plot-wise.
In order to avoid plot traps, it’s advisable to plot your novel before you write it. This will help you foresee possible problems. Since the novel will revolve around a crime, you will need to plot the course of the protagonist’s investigation. Then, you will need to know exactly what the villain will be doing during this time: will he take action against the protagonist, forcing him into a reactive position, and if so, how and when will that action take place, how will it enable the protagonist to continue with the investigation, and how is the villain able to pull such a thing off.
Another way to deal with plot traps is to make drastic changes in order to eliminate them. This usually happens when you discover plot holes during the editing process of your novel, and it might take a lot of time (months even), to deal with them. Be wary of the solutions that come out of nowhere, because they are bound to anger your readers. In other words, do not have a psychic come up with clues for your protagonist, unless you’re writing a story where the evidence of psychic people is recognized as legal by the law.
Writing a crime novel is not an easy process. Compared to other genres, like romance, a crime fiction novel demands that you do your research into crime and the investigation process. If you’re going for a courtroom crime novel, then you need to have really good insider knowledge of what really is happening in a court room. In addition, you need to read as many novels from the crime fiction genre, because that will enable you to recognize clichés easily. It’s a lot easier to recognize clichés when you’re reading them, and it’s even easier to unconsciously regurgitate clichés in your writing without even realizing it. Having a good basis of research and reading to fall back on will help you write a better novel – and if it’s your debut novel, it will help you attract more readers.
This concludes our guide to writing crime fiction. We hope you will find it useful when writing your crime fiction novel. Make sure to give yourself enough time to prepare with research, so you do not need to look up random (but important facts) when you’re writing your novel. In addition, do not forget that in a crime novel, everything revolves around the crime, however, it is the characters that will bring your story to life, so, make sure to focus both on plot and character (and the balance between them) in order to tell a tighter – and more profound story.
Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As a screenwriting student, she is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, watching a film or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her own.