There’s always something so intriguing about crime fiction. The excitement in trying to guess ‘who dunnit?’ and the feeling of shock when we get it wrong. Stereotypically, a crime story features a beaten down detective or cop who seems exhausted about life but finds enough energy to passionately pursue the bad guy and unravel the truth. The detective will have a dark past that follows them in everything they do, and they are usually alone because love is not a feeling they can evoke after all the bad they have witnessed. Oh, how can I forget their unhappy relationship with their superiors?
It’s fair to say that crime fiction follows an obvious pattern. However, it must be doing something right as we keep going back to it! I’m also not suggesting that all crime fiction is like this because that is certainly not the case. There are some crime novels that follow different paths, where the protagonist isn’t some alcoholic struggling through each day. Nonetheless, there is a formula to it and it is difficult to get it right. What is a red herring? Who should be the victim? Who should be the bad guy? I’m not at all an expert in it but I’m hoping I can shed some light on the genre by answering these questions to help you in crafting your crime fiction masterpiece.
To put it simply, crime fiction is a story about crime (mindblowing, I know!). It can be about any crime, even if the crime is as small as a school kid sneaking a chocolate bar out of the shops. I mean, a story based just on that might not seem at all interesting but it’s about what else you include that can make that chocolate bar turn into a domino effect. Maybe it’s about an employer whose job is on the line and the missing chocolate bar starts their own investigation into who stole it before he loses his job.
There needs to be more than that though. If it was that simple, we could all be successful crime writers! It’s the build-up. It’s how you keep the reader guessing. Crime wouldn’t be much fun if who did the crime was easy to figure out. If it is obvious, the reader will become frustrated in the inept detective or cop. This involves adding a bit of mystery or suspense in it. Mystery is its own genre, so I won’t go into that much detail as I’ll eventually get around to doing a genre piece on it. However, mystery (as you can probably guess) evokes a need to find out more since not all the puzzle pieces are available. Suspense is necessary too. I mean, if we didn’t feel our hearts beat a little faster or feel our grips get a little tighter on the edges of the book, would we really read as much as we do?
So, when thinking about crime and how you’re going to make it interesting and original, you need to think of the other genres you’re going to be mixing in there. It can be romance, where the crime is one of passion or maybe the person who is the victim or suspect of the story is someone the protagonist loves. Maybe the other genre is Young Adult or the story is focussed on children, like the Secret Seven (although that is more Mystery than Crime, but you get the picture).
Evidently, there are many creative ways to produce crime fiction. The protagonist doesn’t have to be the detective or cop, it could be the suspect. This would allow suspense to surround the actions of not getting caught. Maybe the protagonist is the wife or husband of the detective or cop? Maybe their child? Maybe the next-door neighbour? As long as the story is impacted by the crime, then it doesn’t matter who the protagonist is.
Then there’s the red herrings. In a basic definition, these are pieces of information or clues that are distracting or misleading. So, in crime, these act perfectly if you want to create suspense or lead your reader down the wrong path. However, they can’t be obvious. If you’re putting all your effort into ensuring the reader is misled and all their focus in on one factor of the story, chances are they’re going to figure out what you’re doing, particularly if they’re an experienced crime reader. I’ve never been good at red herrings, so I’m not going to try and tell you exactly what the best practice is on creating effective ones. However, I can say that sometimes you can work your unsubtle red herrings to your advantage because sometimes being stupidly overt can act as the best way in being covert!
Now, you need to figure out the victim(s), the suspect(s) and the bad guy(s). It really depends on your story. The first victim, who is usually introduced very early, shouldn’t be thought on too much. Sometimes you need to act on whatever comes to mind first and use that as your placeholder. As you build your story, you may think of a better idea that will lend itself to what you’re wanting to write, which is when you go back and make the necessary changes. Regarding the other victims (if there are multiple), the suspect(s) and the bad guy(s), it needs to be believable. Key questions to ask would be:
I’m sure there are many other considerations that experienced crime writers would recommend and I am certainly not in that category. Really, I’m trying to open your mind to the possibilities within crime fiction. It’s not always about murder and kidnapping. It can be so much more than that.
There’s a whole other element when we start throwing non-fiction into the mix but that’s something for another day!
Ultimately, I have only been exposed to a small number of crime fiction stories but I have been falling in love with it. To try and attempt to figure out what’s going on and why, and also keeping in mind that everything in the story is there for a purpose, tickles my curiosity. I’d like to think I figure out ‘who dunnit?’ pretty early on but that’s rarely the case!
Hopefully this has provided some light into the world of crime fiction. Again, I am not an expert in it, so what I have written might not be all that helpful. However, I hope it has highlighted the immense amount of possibilities that can be found in the genre.
Have any crime fiction novels you would recommend? Let me know in the comments or send me a message on social media! I want to delve into more of these stories to practice my own detective skills, so all recommendations are appreciated!
If you have a recommendation that isn’t crime fiction, that’s fine. I want to explore all the worlds I possibly can in this life, so if there’s one you want me to jump into then I will gladly do so!
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.