Stories That Kill. 7 Tips for Writing Crime

    Categories: Writing

OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn

Writing crime is definitely a different kind of beast, as I found out when writing “Desecration” last year.

Murder mystery takes intricate plotting, you need to set up multiple characters who might be responsible, and you need to have an original spin to stand out in this popular genre. In today's post, crime writer Luke Preston shares some of his tips.

If you want to write a crime novel, you’d better be ready to pick a fight. People are going to hate you and there’s nothing you can do about that.

They’re going to hate you for killing off their favorite characters, they’re going to lecture you for your use of bad language and they are going to resent you for taking them to places that challenge their values and beliefs. If you don’t like picking a fight, go write something else. But, if you like getting your knuckles bloody, you’ve come to the right place.

Writing is hard and finding your way through the words takes an immense amount of time. Here are 7 tips that I wish somebody had told me years before I put pen to paper.

(1) Don't be boring

The worst crime a writer can commit is to be boring. I’d rather do serious time for murder than to be accused of being boring. If a crime novel turns out to be boring there’s a very high chance it is because the writer was bored while penning the decaf infused words. The worst piece of advice I have ever heard, and it’s slapped around like a 12 step mantra is, ‘Write what you know.’ It’s bullshit, never write what you know, write what excites you. You do that and that excitement will come across on the page and excite the reader.

(2) Grab the reader by the throat on the first page and don't let go

In any story, the opening sentence, paragraph, page or chapter can be vital and crime writing is no exception. Start your story off like a shotgun blast in the middle of the night.

Here are a couple of opening types that have worked for me in the past.

The Action Opening: Start the novel with the hero in some sort of physical or emotional jeopardy

The Flashback Opening: Start with a moment of high drama from somewhere later in the novel and then flashback to the events leading up to it.

The First Day on the Job Opening: A good way to introduce the world to the reader is to discover it through the eyes of the hero. They may, as the title suggests, be starting a new job, or they may have just arrived in town.

The Everyday Hero Opening: Your protagonist is going about their everyday life and some event sends them spiraling off into another direction.

Outside Action: The outside action event could be a robbery, or a murder, or any problem that doesn’t involve the hero.

Never start with a description of the weather. In a crime novel, if you open with the description of the weather I’m going to think that the weather killed somebody.

(3) Have a crime

If you are writing a crime novel bad and awful things, sourced from the madness of your soul, need to happen. A crime novel without a crime isn’t a crime novel and a straight up murder isn’t going to cut it anymore. Give your criminals unique and conflicting reasons to be criminals. The bad guy in a story never knows he’s the bad guy. In his story, he’s the good guy. Your protagonist is only as strong as the forces of antagonism they are up against. Give them something to go up against.

*Note: A killer never kills because they are mad, there is always a reason.

(4) Don't write likeable characters

Nobody likes likable characters. They may think they do and they may believe they do, but they really don’t. What they like are interesting characters. Characters that make mistakes, characters that think fast and think badly, flawed characters, but likeable characters. Likeable is boring.  Crime novels are littered with sons of bitches, wild men, dubious women and double crossing bastards.  Given the questionable nature of the characters that populate the pages of a crime novel, the question is how do you capture the hearts of the readers and keep them turning the page?

The answer is empathy.

Empathy is different from likable. Even the most renegade of criminal will detest a serial killer. But we are more than happy to read pages and pages of a serial killer roaming the streets of Florida murdering  away for pleasure and work as Dexter does in Jeff Lindsey’s series. Readers don’t turn those pages because they like Dexter or believe in his cause. They do because they empathize with Dexter – he’s a guy who just wants to fit in.

Here are a couple of ways to create empathy.

  1. Make the hero funny
  2. Make the hero a victim
  3. Show the hero in a dilemma
  4. Show the hero being highly skilled
  5. Show the hero being selfless

(5) Endings that slap you in the face

A killer ending us just as important as a killer opening. The reader has been good enough to purchase your novel and read it all the way to the final pages so give them an ending that will knock them on their ass (and send them straight out to buy your next novel).

Great endings give the reader what they want but not in the way they expect it. It reads easy but it’s not. Think of the ending as a mini three-act structure with twists and turns, reversals, setbacks and new plans. And when you’re story is over, end it! That guy in the first act who had the really cool car and said those three cool lines of dialogue; to the hell with him — we don’t care where he ended up. As ‘B’ movie king, Roger Corman once said, when the monster is dead, the movie is over.

(6) Get into a fight

Get out of the office, hit the street and start a fight. I don’t care with who. I don’t care what about. You can’t expect to be a writer without getting out into the world and getting your heart and knuckles scraped. Don’t hide in the world, be a part of it, experience its disappointments and triumphs, anger and heartbreaks and put it all on the page.

(7) What the hell is your story about?

Well, what the hell is your story about?

This is the question you need to ask yourself every single day that you follow one word with another on the way to the final last few. I’m not talking about the high concept idea you pitch at parties where you say your novel is about a guy, from wherever, who does this, and that happens. I’m talking about what your story is about on a thematic level. What does it mean to you? What are you saying about the world with your story? What the hell is it really about?

It’s that hidden drive, buried deep in your sub-conscious that pushes you to get up early and stay up late pounding out the words at the typer. Some of us write out of anger, and some of us write out of sadness. The only way to define what it is you are really writing is to sit in that familiar position of pen in hand and write down a list:

Ten things that make you angry

Ten things that make you sad

Think about what relates to you most and give that trait to your protagonist. Bruce Wayne isn’t angry that his parents were murdered (although I’m sure that pissed him off) what really drives Bruce Wayne is that he is angry that people are not held responsible for their actions. Therefore, he becomes a vigilante. That is what is really at the heart of Batman. And whether you know it or not, there is something at the heart of your story and if you can define it, you can develop and explore it with a master’s control.

What I’ve been writing about here are only a few things that have helped me over my years in the war of the words, take what you can from it, and discard what you will. The words come differently to everyone. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow and sometimes not at all. In those times of darkness and empty pages remember that, if you wait, if you are patient, the words will always come.

Do you write crime? Or love reading crime? Please share your comments and tips below.

Luke Preston spent most of his twenties as a freelance writer, a private investigator and listening to rock ‘n roll. He is the author of the Tom Bishop Rampages, Dark City Blue and its sequel, Out of Exile, which can be found here.

Luke’s writing is as much influenced by AC/DC and Johnny Cash as it is by Richard Stark and Raymond Chandler. He holds a Master's degree in Screenwriting from the Victorian College of the Arts and has absolutely no intention of moving to a shack in the middle of nowhere. He likes bad traffic, noisy neighbors, cheap beer, loud bars and has been occasionally known to howl at the moon. Luke’s work has been recognized by The Inside Film Awards, MTV and The ATOM Awards.

Joanna Penn:

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  • I'm writing a cop/crime script for a movie, would this list still apply to the concept of a movie instead of a book? it's my first time writing a movie script with other people and I just don't know what to throw into "the pit" something we call the ideas table

  • First I was a carpenter for 12 yrs, then with a degree in Comp Sci I was a computer programmer for 20 yrs and now I want to be a crime novel writer. I expect to be finished with my first book in a few months and then on to make a movie of my novel. I plan to get very wealthy very fast and never have to work again. Thank you for these very helpful tips.

    • I like your ambition ... but "very wealthy, very fast" is not something that is very likely with books :) Very wealthy over a long period of time as you create books that readers love and want to pay for is definitely possible. Look at someone like George RR Martin, James Patterson, Lee Child or even Stephen King. Writing can make you very wealthy but it is more like a 20 year plan. But if writing books is what you love, then the journey will be super fun.

  • Joanna, Thank you for this post. I am a "newbie" at writing, period. I've always enjoyed the thought of writing and decided when I retired to fulfill one of the dreams on my bucket list...write!
    I am a fan of suspense novels. Do they use that term anymore? Patterson, Baldacci, Child, etc. just to name a few. I'm currently working on my first novel's outline and your post has helped. Thank you!

  • Hey, I am a young writer, I'm only a tween. But I love to write novels and I'm a very ambitious girl-- I've already plunged myself into five different novels at once. I decided to slow down and do one at a time (probably a good idea) and I decided upon the novel I like best. I'm working on it and i haven't decided on a title yet (if you have any ideas comment below) but it concerns my favorite plot-- crime and mystery.
    Basically, it's about a thirteen year old girl, Emma Jones, who's mom is chief of the police force. One day at school, there is a kidnapper alert, and there is a lockdown. Emma soon gets wrapped up in the mystery of the criminal, and soon finds she's investigating something bigger than just a kidnapper. I haven't planned the whole story out yet (which would probably be good) but I'm planning on having the criminal caught by the end of the book, then the book closes with Emma who comes to visit him in his cell and finds him gone and a note adressed to her left. I'm not going to tell the readers what the note says yet, just to let their imagination run wild (is he after her? Is he planning revenge? What's the kidnapper up to?) and I'm planning on a big surprise somewhere in the book too: Emma realises the kidnapper is in a big organization run by the one person she was told was dead-- her dad.
    It's going to turn out her mom is a cop and her dad is a criminal, and I may even throw in a murder somewhere, but I don't want the story to get too crowded and confusing. Maybe I can do that in my second book (I mean, I can't leave them hanging with that ending with the note, can I ?), but I want my book to be bigger, to be more than just a kidnapper.
    I love crime novels where the entire time I read I'm either wracking my head trying to see the big picture, wondering what on earth the answer could be or that I'm being led off into a confusing and complicated lead, and then suddenly BAM. They drop the bomb, leaving me slapping my head and saying "I should've seen that coming!". I want to write my book like that, but I don't know how. I know planning is an essential part of it, but like i said I haven't planned much yet. If you have any suggestions, please comment.
    I own my own blog which I write my novels on, but I don't know if I want to publish my books yet.
    Anyway, I love to write, even though people don't take me seriously at my age. I write everyday and writing is my passion. People say I won't make a living writing, and I'm dying to prove them wrong, but sometimes I doubt my own skill. Do you know more tips on how to write good mystery novels which drop the bomb and makes readers slap themselves saying they should've seen that coming? I love making peopl slap themselves in the face?.

    • I love that you're ambitious! and I hope you keep writing. You definitely can make a living with this - and you will do it much younger than I did, if you invest time in improving your craft over time. There are resources here for young writers: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2011/07/20/resources-for-young-writers/ I'm going to update the post but many of the links are still valid.
      Doing one novel at a time is a good idea - and I'd suggest that in order to finish one you make it as simple as you can. Ambitious storytelling can come later - finishing the first story is the most important thing! All the best.

      • Thank you for the tips. When I write, I condense things or people. I rush through my novel. I need to let the reader know more about the characters and their environment. Hope this helps.

  • I agree with your tips, and they are not controversial. It rather reminded me of the crime maestro James Hadley Chase. After reading many of James H. Chase's works, I couldn't help, but to allow my brain to get cranked up...imagining crimes and putting them down. I am looking for avenues to bring these loads of crime fictions to change the action movie industry. I need help.

  • Thanks so much. I completely agree with your points about writing crime.
    Author can't act like a nice guy or write about nice guys when writing crime.
    There is no point if that's how you are gonna write. Stick with romance then.

  • One thing i can advise you about writing a thriller is to stop with the historical talk, less details and more action. As much action as possible! Excitement and adrenaline in every page. No body cares what kind of shoes the detective was wearing. Good luck.

  • I write many genres of fiction but right now my baby is a crime novel I call "Death Not Optional". I'm on my third draft of it posting it on sites like Wattpad to gain readers and get interest from editors.

    I finally am thinking that this may be the last draft before I find an official editor due to my new chapter 1 that I have been obsessing over rereading it nearly every hour.

    I lost it. I lost my groove and can't continue chapter two. I've been trying to fill in plot holes and expand my chapters to more writing so my readers aren't left wondering that much.

    This has helped so much. It's keeping me on track for writing my main characters again and really start thinking about how I want the story to move from point a to point be.

    Thank you very much!

  • What a great article - every point Luke Preston makes rings true.

    As for tad dane's quibbles, he (or she) hasn't taken the trouble to read the article properly. Preston emphasises the need for themes - aren't themes the meat of literary fiction? Are they not the deep matter which tad jane claims to crave?

    Quality is what counts, irrespective of whether or not a novel conforms to any genre conventions. Surely there is no arguing with that.

    Tad jane, if ever you read this, follow the link below to Natasha Mostert's blog where she discusses literary fiction v commercial fiction:


    Final point: there are plenty of books out there purporting to be literary fiction which are dull and shallow.

  • Using this to help me write a short crime fiction story for my English class, and it really helped! Hopefully my prof likes my story :) Thank you for the help!