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Writing

How to Write a Crime Novel: 9 Tips for Writing Crime Fiction

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 5, 2020 • 4 min read

Driven by drama, intrigue, thrilling action, and problem-solving, crime novels are often page-turners that readers have a hard time putting down. Writing a crime novel can be just as exciting a process, as your imagination sets the stage for mystery and momentum.

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What Is a Crime Novel?

A crime novel focuses on a crime that sets off an unfolding narrative that builds toward a major reveal or resolution—who did the crime, why did they do it, and how were they brought to justice? While some crime novels are told through the point of view of a criminal, most follow an investigator as they dive deeper into an often increasingly dark and complicated web of ill deeds, deception, complex timelines, and mixed motives. Crime subgenres include whodunnits, legal thrillers, hardboiled detective stories, noir fiction, spy novels, and psychological thrillers.

3 Examples of Crime Novels

Crime novels and short stories have been a popular form of fiction for nearly two centuries.

  1. The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe (1841): Among the earliest well-known works of crime fiction are Edgar Allan Poe's short stories about the detective C. Auguste Dupin.
  2. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892): In this volume of stories, Doyle popularized the locked room mystery subgenre—where a seemingly impossible crime must be solved—and created one of crime fiction’s most beloved, brilliant, and eccentric characters of all time.
  3. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (1934): Another classic, this novel introduced Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Christie’s work helped earn that era its enduring reputation as the golden age of detective fiction.
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9 Tips for Writing a Crime Novel

If you’re planning to pen your own crime novel, consider these tips before you begin:

  1. Read the greats. Shore up your crime-writing skills by immersing yourself in the crime genre. Read every great thriller, murder mystery, whodunit, true crime tale, or detective novel you can. Note how each book deploys point of view, plot twists, interesting characters, cliffhangers, and even clichés. More than other genres, crime fiction leans into formula—learn what’s come before so you can find your own path forward.
  2. Write what excites you. Unless you’re a criminal or sleuth, the old axiom “write what you know” likely won’t apply here. But rather than study the bestsellers to see what other crime writers are (or aren’t) doing, write the crime stories that excite you. This is a genre driven by the power of unfolding logical deductions and the thrill of the chase. If you’re inspired to dash toward the big reveal, chances are your readers will be too.
  3. Do your research. Assume your readers know a good detective story when they read one. Even if they’ve only seen crime procedurals on TV, they probably have a passing familiarity with police departments, detective work, and crime scenes. So if DNA, serial killer profiling, or computer hacking are vital to your crime novel, learn how they work. Just be wary of data-dumping more technical info than you need into the story.
  4. Begin with the crime. When writing crime fiction, the engine behind the narrative is the crime itself. The crime sets off a series of events that require investigation, point to unexpected motives, reveal interesting characters, and build toward a resolution. You want to pull your readers right into that drama in your first chapter. In Sherlock Holmes terms, the game should be afoot from the start.
  5. Create flawed heroes. Detective fiction and even nonfiction is full of gritty scenes and situations. Your main character, their sidekick, and especially any official investigators feel more realistic if they’re imperfect, or have conflicting motives. Are they making amends? Seeking vengeance? Selfless to the point of recklessness? Build empathy through complexity.
  6. Create complex criminals. Similarly, your mystery novel or detective story will benefit from a bad guy who’s complicated. Maybe they do what they do because of a love interest. Maybe their warped view of reality leads them to think they’re helping humanity. As is often the case in real life, the bad guys see themselves as the good guys of their own story. Presenting them this way can help raise the stakes in a thrilling mystery story.
  7. Honor the victims. It can be easy to get caught up in advancing the narrative when writing detective stories, but it’s important to remember that dead bodies aren’t just plot devices. You want to respect your victims, and you can also enhance the realism, emotional impact, and impetus for justice within your own detective fiction by exploring the impact of violence on those left behind.
  8. Make location a character. Whether your crime novel is set in a big city like New York or a small town, lean into the atmosphere that setting provides. Is there a palpable grit or an eerie quiet? Does the setting play into ideas readers already have about a secret urban underbelly? Or is it an especially jarring place for your crime to have been committed? Mystery writers have played off of such themes for decades.
  9. Keep your audience guessing. It’s tempting to overdo plot twists—many detective-story writers bend a narrative until it isn’t believable, then have to deploy a deus ex machina or get stuck with an anticlimax. Instead, build in natural cliffhangers that make it tough to put your book down. Drop red herrings to misdirect your audience’s suspicions. If the explanation for the crime or identity of the culprit is unclear, do some sleuthing—play with alibis, evidence, and motives.

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