How to Write Crime Fiction: Master the Craft of Crime Novels

Posted on Jun 14, 2023

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Written by P.J McNulty

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Today’s world is obsessed with crime.

Whether that’s the latest true crime everyone is talking about, or a bestselling work of crime fiction, there’s no denying its immense popularity.

In this guide we’ll share everything you need to know about the genre so you can learn how to write crime fiction yourself.

Let’s get to it.

What are the elements of crime fiction?

A Crime Fiction Detective Surrounded By Crime Novels

To master the craft of crime fiction, you must first understand its DNA, the crucial elements that breathe life into the genre.

Let’s unmask these components and explore how they can shape your book.

At the epicenter of crime fiction is – you guessed it – the crime.

It’s the consequential event that disrupts the status quo and sets your story in motion.

It’s not always a murder. Theft, kidnapping, blackmail – these are all options.

The only rule?

It has to engage the reader’s curiosity. This crime, this central puzzle, it’s the magnetic force that pulls your reader through the pages of your book. Nail this, and you’ve got them hooked.

Next up, the detective.

They’re your reader’s guide, their ally in solving the puzzle.

Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nancy Drew – what do they all have in common? A unique personality and a knack for deduction.

But remember, they don’t need to be a traditional detective. They could be a journalist, a concerned friend, or even a busybody aunt!

The key here is to create a compelling detective, someone your readers will root for, someone they’d follow through the twists and turns of your book.

And let’s not forget the suspects.

They are the smoke and mirrors of your narrative, the red herrings that obscure the truth.

Each one must be credible, with motives and opportunities that make your reader pause and think, “Could they have done it?” By crafting a line-up of plausible suspects, you keep the readers on their toes, flipping pages, second-guessing their theories, totally engrossed in your book.

Finally, the setting.

It’s not just a backdrop; it’s a living, breathing character.

Whether it’s the foggy streets of Victorian London or a sun-drenched Miami beach, your setting can enhance the mood, add complexity, and heighten the tension. Choose it wisely, describe it vividly, make it a place your reader can’t wait to return to – every time they open your book.

To craft a masterpiece, you need to understand these fundamental building blocks of crime fiction.

But remember, while it’s crucial to respect these conventions, it’s also important to put your unique spin on them.

How to craft a crime novel

Get ready to explore the essence of your story.

We’re tackling the art of plot crafting, a skill that’s vital in holding your reader’s attention and making your book impossible to put down. Now let’s explore how you can construct a labyrinth of suspense that’ll keep your readers hooked.

First things first – the crime. As we touched on in the previous section, this isn’t just any event; it’s the catalyst, the spark that ignites the flame of your story. It needs to be compelling, it needs to be intriguing, and above all, it needs to demand answers. The nature of this crime, how it’s committed, the tantalizing clues left behind – this is what will pull your readers into the world of your book, making them yearn for resolution.

Next up – the investigation. This is where your detective shines, piecing together the puzzle. But remember, a straight path makes for a dull journey. Your investigation needs twists and turns, unexpected revelations, and shocking discoveries.

Then we have the suspects. They’re the keys to your plot, each one unlocking a different path in your investigation. Remember, each suspect needs to be more than just a name; they need depth, they need motive, they need alibis that barely hold water. By weaving a web of suspects, each with their own secrets, you keep your reader guessing, making your book an addictive whodunit.

Finally, the climax. It’s the big reveal, the moment your reader has been waiting for. But a climax isn’t just about unveiling the criminal; it’s about the journey your detective took to unmask them. It’s about the pieces falling into place, about your reader having that “Aha!” moment. This climax, this resolution, it’s the payoff for your reader’s invested time. Get it right, and your book will leave a lasting impression.

The plot is the backbone of your narrative.

It’s the roadmap that guides your reader, making them thrilled, apprehensive, surprised, and satisfied.

By mastering the art of crafting an engaging plot, you’re not just writing a book; you’re creating an experience. And isn’t that how you want to feel after finishing a crime story?

Types of crime fiction: four classic genres

Ready to explore the major types of crime fiction? Understanding these categories will help you find the perfect home for your book. So, let’s embark on this journey and uncover the various types of crime fiction.

First up, hard-boiled crime fiction.

Picture a world-weary detective, a corrupt society, and a plot that isn’t afraid to show the dark underbelly of life. It’s raw, it’s gritty, and it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of crime. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett – they pioneered this genre, giving us tales soaked in cynicism and moral ambiguity. Is this the canvas you see for your book? Then welcome to the realm of hard-boiled crime fiction.

Now, let’s turn the dial to cozy mysteries.

Here, the blood and gore take a backseat, and the focus shifts to the puzzle. Your detective could be a clever amateur, your setting a quaint village, and your crime a mystery that disrupts the harmony. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories are the poster child of this sub-genre. So, if you’re aiming for a more cerebral and less violent narrative for your book, cozy mystery might be your cup of tea.

Next stop, police procedurals.

This sub-genre puts the spotlight on the meticulous, step-by-step investigation carried out by law enforcement. Think of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series or the works of J.D. Robb. Your readers are not just looking for a whodunit, but also a howcatchem. They want the nitty-gritty of police work, the thrill of the chase. If you find this appealing, then your book might find its home in the police procedural category.

Lastly, we have the legal and courtroom drama.

This is where the crime is solved not on the streets, but inside the courtrooms. Your main character could be a brilliant lawyer or a relentless prosecutor. The focus here isn’t just about finding the culprit but also about ensuring justice is served, often with compelling courtroom scenes. If John Grisham’s works resonate with you, then this might be the best choice for your book.

There are numerous other sub-genres within crime fiction, each with its unique flavor.

Understanding these categories can provide a framework for your narrative.

But remember, it’s your book, so don’t feel restricted.

You’re free to blend elements, defy conventions, and create something entirely new. After all, innovation is at the heart of great storytelling.

Character development in crime fiction

A Retro Crime Fiction Character Wearing A Hat, Coat, And Tie

Crime fiction is not just about whodunit; it’s about who’s involved, who’s affected, and who solves it. Let’s explore how to craft characters that leap off the page and leave a lasting impression on your readers.

The detective is the powerhouse of your story, driving the investigation and serving as your reader’s trusted guide.

But they need to be more than just a crime-solving machine. Give them depth, quirks, a backstory that adds layers to their personality. Sherlock Holmes has his violin, Hercule Poirot his meticulousness. What about your detective? Remember, the more relatable and intriguing they are, the more invested your reader will be in your book.

The villain, often the perpetrator of the crime, is equally crucial.

They need to be intelligent, cunning, and capable of devising a plot that baffles the reader. But a cardboard cut-out villain won’t do. They need a motive, a reason for their deeds that is convincing, if not justifiable. By painting your villain in shades of grey, you create a character that is not just feared, but also understood. This added complexity will make your book all the more compelling.

The supporting characters – the suspects, the sidekick, the victims – they’re the lifeblood of your narrative.

Each one needs to be fleshed out, contributing to the mystery, adding to the suspense. Give them secrets, hidden depths that keep the reader guessing. Remember, everyone’s a suspect until proven innocent. The more believable your supporting cast, the richer the world of your book.

Finally, the relationships between your characters.

The banter between Holmes and Watson, the tension between Poirot and his suspects – these dynamics add depth and intrigue. How does your detective interact with the villain? What about the other characters? These interactions can create tension, add humor, and provide a welcome respite from the intensity of the investigation. It’s these intricate dynamics that will make your book resonate with readers.

Characters are the heart and soul of your narrative.

They’re the ones who bring the plot to life, who make the reader care about the outcome.

By crafting compelling characters and their relationships, you’re not just writing a book; you’re creating a world that your reader can’t wait to revisit.

How to develop the plot of your crime story

Let’s take a look at the mechanics of plot development in crime fiction. This is where the magic happens, where your ideas transform into a riveting narrative. Ready to weave a plot that has your readers biting their nails? Let’s get started.

Your opening scene is the hook.

It’s the moment that pulls your readers into the mystery. The question is – how do you make it irresistible? The answer lies in creating intrigue right off the bat. A cryptic letter, a sinister crime scene, an eerie prophecy – these can be the spark that ignites the flame of your plot. The more enticing the mystery, the deeper your reader will dive into your book.

Next, the setup.

Here, you introduce your detective, the crime, and the suspects. But remember, first impressions matter. Make your characters memorable, your crime baffling, and your suspects intriguing. Every detail you reveal, every secret you hint at, is a thread that weaves the intricate tapestry of your plot. It’s this setup that forms the foundation of your book.

Now comes the investigation.

This is where the plot thickens, where red herrings, alibis, and clues come into play. Remember, a straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it’s almost never the most interesting. Throw in twists and turns, unexpected revelations, even a false resolution or two. Keep your reader guessing, second-guessing, and you’ll keep them turning the pages of your book.

Finally, the climax and resolution.

The ‘aha!’ moment your reader has been waiting for. This should not only solve the crime but also tie up loose ends, resolving subplots and character arcs. But make sure it’s not too predictable. Surprising yet logical – that’s the sweet spot for a crime fiction resolution. Nail this, and your reader will close your book with a sense of satisfaction and the eagerness to read more of your work.

Proven tips for writers of crime fiction

Let’s check out a series of specific, detailed tips to help you write better works of crime fiction.

First off, read widely and voraciously.

It’s the best education a writer can get. Not just crime fiction, but all genres. Each book you read, each author you explore, can teach you something new about storytelling. The more you read, the more tools you’ll have in your writer’s toolbox when crafting your book.

Next, prioritize character development.

Readers stick around not just for the whodunit, but for the who’s doing it. Make your characters complex, relatable, and memorable. Remember, they’re the heart and soul of your book. A compelling mystery is essential, but it’s the characters that make readers care about the mystery.

Thirdly, plot with care.

A well-structured plot is the backbone of your crime novel. Pay close attention to pacing, suspense, and the placement of clues. The more intricate and well-planned your plot, the more satisfying your book will be to the reader.

On a related note, master the art of misdirection.

Red herrings, false suspects, misleading clues – these are your best friends. They keep your reader guessing, adding to the suspense and thrill. But remember, misdirection should be fair. The clues to the real culprit should be there, subtly hidden in plain sight in your book.

Lastly, don’t shy away from feedback.

Whether it’s from beta readers, writing groups, or a professional editor, constructive criticism can help you spot weaknesses and refine your narrative. Embrace it as a stepping stone to improve your book.

Writing crime fiction can be challenging, but with passion, persistence, and these tips in your arsenal, you’re more than equipped to conquer this genre.

Should a work of crime fiction incorporate realism?

Get ready to toe the line between fiction and reality. When it comes to crime fiction, realism can be the difference maker that lets your book resonate with readers.

So how do you make your narrative believable while keeping it engaging? Let’s explore.

Starting with the crime itself, the essence of your story.

It’s vital to make it plausible, something that could happen in the real world. Whether it’s a daring heist, a chilling murder, or a cunning fraud, the crime needs to be credible. Research is your friend here. Dig into real-life cases, understand the modus operandi, study the patterns. The more realistic your crime, the more immersed your reader will be in your book.

Next, the investigation.

It’s tempting to cut corners, to make the detective’s journey smooth. But real investigations are rarely straightforward. They are intricate, time-consuming, often frustrating. They involve procedure, forensics, and a whole lot of legwork. By reflecting these elements in your story, you lend an air of authenticity that can make your book even more gripping.

Your characters, too, need a touch of realism.

A detective with an uncanny ability to solve every puzzle? A villain who leaves convenient clues? They might sound exciting, but they’re far from realistic. Give your characters flaws, doubts, moments of failure. Make them human. This not only makes them relatable but also adds depth to your book.

Lastly, the legal aspects.

This is where many crime fiction narratives falter. Laws, regulations, court procedures – they might not be the most exciting elements, but they are crucial for realism. A courtroom scene that mirrors real legal procedures, a reveal that sticks to the law of the land – these details can add a layer of authenticity to your book.

Realism in crime fiction isn’t about sacrificing creativity; it’s about enhancing it.

It’s about grounding your thrilling narrative in a world that feels tangible.

When your readers see that you’ve done your homework, they’ll be even more invested in your book.

So, let realism be your guiding light as you navigate the thrilling landscape of crime fiction.

Modern trends in crime fiction

Buckle up for a ride into the future. Crime fiction is ever-evolving, reflecting changes in society, technology, and readers’ tastes. By understanding these modern trends, you can ensure that your book resonates with contemporary readers.

First, let’s talk about diversity.

Modern crime fiction is moving away from the stereotypical white, male detective to embrace a wide range of protagonists. Detectives from marginalized communities, protagonists with unique life experiences, narratives set in diverse locales – these are the stories making waves today. By adding diversity to your book, you can broaden its appeal and reflect the world as it is.

Next up, the blending of genres.

Pure crime fiction is making way for hybrid narratives. Crime mixed with romance, sci-fi, fantasy, even comedy – the possibilities are endless. This cross-genre approach can lend freshness to your narrative, capturing readers’ attention. So don’t hesitate to push the boundaries of crime fiction with your book.

Thirdly, technology plays a significant role in modern crime fiction.

Cybercrime, AI detectives, digital forensics – these are not just plot devices, but integral aspects of contemporary life. Incorporating technology into your book can make it more relatable to the digital native reader and add an exciting layer to your mystery.

Lastly, social issues have found their way into crime fiction.

Racism, gender inequality, mental health – these themes are woven into the narrative, creating a richer, more profound reading experience. By tackling such issues in your book, you can connect with readers on a deeper level, offering not just entertainment, but food for thought.

These trends are not rules set in stone, but signposts pointing to the evolving tastes of readers. By keeping abreast of these trends, you can ensure that your book doesn’t just mirror the present, but also resonates with the future.

Remember, as a writer, you’re not just a storyteller, but also a trendsetter.

So go ahead, embrace the new, and let your book be a shining example for other indie authors to follow.

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