How to Write a Short Crime Story Readers Won’t See Coming

Posted on Oct 3, 2023

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Written by Bella Rose Pope

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Knowing how to write a short crime story isn’t something many writers just know. It’s not intuitive, the process of laying down clues that readers could figure out but hiding them enough that they never do, and are therefore surprised by the outcome.

While also keeping it to the confines of a short story.

There are plenty opinions about writing a short crime story, or even murder mystery stories, and not all of it’s bad. Plus, we believe every writer will develop their own process over time, given the right tools.

That’s what we’re here to do. Provide you with the right tools.

How to write a short crime story in a nutshell:

  1. What is a short crime story?
  2. How to write a short crime story step by step
  3. Choose the crime type
  4. Come up with the premise
  5. Develop the character
  6. Plot the short crime story
  7. Choose a theme
  8. Where to submit your short crime story

What is a short crime story?

Any story in which the main focus of the plot has something to do with crime—whether it’s a mystery, heist, or other law-breaking activities—is considered a crime story. What makes it a short story is if it remains under the word count of a short story.

In brief, there are many types of short stories, but they’ll fall under 10,000 words. You can get away with writing a bit over this and still consider it a short story, but anything between 15,000-50,000 words is considered a novella and no longer a short story.

How to Write a Short Crime Story Step by Step

Crime stories have many components. While the story may be on the shorter side, you’ll still find the classic elements of fiction present.

Here’s how you can learn how to write a short crime story:

1. Decide which type of crime story it will be

“Crime” is very broad. While you may have automatically thought of a murder mystery style story, there are many other to choose from, as I mentioned above. One of the best things you can do when figuring out how to write a short crime story is to decide on something slightly different than mainstream, but well-known enough that it will interest people.

This is a general rule of thumb for writing fiction, but important to note.

Here are other crime topics and ideas to choose from:

  • Illegal car racing (think Fast and the Furious)
  • Heists
  • Drug dealing (think Breaking Bad)
  • White collar crimes
  • Murder
  • Cyber crime / hacking

The list could go on. Choose which type of crime will best fit your theme (more on that below), and go from there. It also helps if you have some inside knowledge about a certain type of crime or the surrounding aspects (criminal justice, for example).

But you don’t have to have personal criminal history

2. Come up with the premise

The premise of a story is like a one-sentence summary, often in the form of a “what it”.

  • What if a recently released convict needs to steal one last time?
  • What if a goody-two-shoes winds up needing to strike an illegal deal in order to get into the school of their dreams?
  • What if a retired detective is accused of a crime and must solve their own case from behind bars?

The idea here is to take a certain character and pair it with a plot that seems interesting, compelling, and has some conflict. You can come up with many of them and then choose the one that would be most interesting to write. Or, since you’re learning how to write a short crime story, you can write many of them for practice.

After you have a vague idea of the character and plot, you can move on to developing those further.

3. Determine the character

Because short crime stories aren’t very long, you have to get crisp and clear with your character. You want the story to feel just as well-developed as a novel, even if it’s only a few thousands words. For that reason, work on your character development as if you were writing a novel.

Knowing who your character is will help develop your writing voice—even if you write in third person. The narrative should still depict the characterization, and that can help make a short crime story feel rich and full even though it’s not very long.

This looks like:

  1. building a backstory that makes sense
  2. giving them strengths and weaknesses
  3. creating believable flaws
  4. deciding the tone this character has
  5. choosing their personality traits—specifically some that make their involvement in the plot more interesting

The backstory and personality aspects will greatly add depth to the story. You want to get to a point where if you chose a different character as the protagonist, the entire story—while maintaining the same plot—will sound completely different.

4. Brainstorm the plot

Even though it’s a short story, it will still have the classic marks of a story: introduction, rising action, climax, and resolution. Some short stories, however, end with a very short resolution or even during the climax.

To start, figure out the main conflict. What is the story about? Remember that conflict, including the antagonist, can be internal and character-driven too. Many short stories explore characters, their motives, and their mode of operating, posing questions for the reader to figure out.

Maybe your main character is the one who committed the crime. What is their journey like?

Maybe your main character is trying to solve the crime.

Maybe they’re adjacent to the crime—the one being robbed or whose family member was harmed.

Short stories don’t have a lot of rules about where to start the story the way novels do. You can start when the crime is being committed. You can start five years afterward, when new information has been brought to light. You can even start far before, and the ending of the story is when the crime happens.

It truly all depends. Experiment and try various starting points and craft your plot from there.

5. Consider the theme

Many short stories have poignant themes. The story is constructed around it and many of them leave the readers thinking about their own interpretation of it.

Part of knowing how to write a short crime story has to do with determining where it will differ from a full crime novel. When it comes to theme, a full novel may have a few that are worked out over the course of more time. With short stories, you have much less time (word count) to work with and therefore, many themes are left more open-ended, with the onus on the reader to decide what it meant.

For that reason, you often get different opinions on what short stories mean, which is perfectly acceptable. After all, part of learning how to write a short crime story has to do with figuring out what it is you want to say, but accepting that everyone may get something else out of it.

9 Places to Submit a Short Crime Story for Publication

If the reason you’re learning how to write a short crime story is because you want to get it published somewhere, that’s great! There are numerous places to choose from, and below we have the types as well as a few sources.

  1. Literary Magazines and Journals: Many literary magazines and journals accept short crime stories. Some popular ones include:
  2. Online Platforms: Anywhere you’re able to make an account and post publicly, you can technically publish your short crime story. Here are a couple popular options:
    • Wattpad: A platform where you can share your stories with a large community of readers. Some writers have gained significant recognition through Wattpad.
    • Medium: You can publish your fiction stories on Medium and potentially earn money through their Partner Program.
    • Substack: This is technically an online platform used to send newsletters, but because of its growth, it’s now an app and website where the newsletters live online. I have one for fiction advice called The Fiction Ferver, but many fiction authors also post their short stories as newsletters that are available online.
  3. Writing Contests:
    • Keep an eye out for writing contests that specifically focus on crime or mystery fiction. These often provide a great platform for exposure.
  4. Anthologies:
    • Some publishers put out anthologies focused on specific genres, including crime. Look for calls for submissions for these.
    • You can also become active in certain Facebook groups where there are self-published authors who want to put together anthologies and will create posts seeking additions.
  5. Personal Blog or Website:
    • You can start your own blog or website to publish your stories. This gives you full control over your content. If you’re not sure how to create an author website, check out the video linked there.
  6. Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP):
  7. Literary Agents:
    • If you have a collection of stories or a novel-length crime work, you might consider seeking a literary agent. They can help you find a publisher. If you want to know how to write a short crime story for a living, this might be a way to do it.
  8. Social Media and Forums:
    • You can share your stories on platforms like Reddit (e.g., r/writing, r/writers) or specialized forums dedicated to crime fiction.
  9. Local Newspapers or Magazines:
    • Some local publications accept short stories, including crime fiction, from local authors.

Remember to always read and follow the submission guidelines provided by each publication. Each one will have its own specific requirements regarding format, word count, and submission process.

Learning how to write a short crime story is more about trial and error than anything else. Since the medium is shorter, you can try many stories to see what style, tone, and story you like best.

And if you need any help with your story, or want to know how to turn that short story idea into a full-length novel, sign up for our free class teaching you just that:

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