Plotting the Perfect Crime: Top Tips for Writing Your Crime Novel

4 minutes read

Claire McGowan, author of The Fall and tutor on Faber Academy's Writing Crime course, gives her top tips for writing a crime novel.

 

 

So you think you might want to write a crime novel – congratulations, just by knowing what genre you’re writing in you are way ahead of most aspiring authors. But what are the elements you need to write a successful crime novel? Not everyone agrees about this – for example I think you can get away without having an actual murder, but others disagree – but here are my thoughts on the essentials.

You need to have a strong story

This means lots going on, high stakes, some level of danger, an urgent dilemma, problem, or goal for your lead character (or all three). To strengthen your story, you could think about adding a ticking clock or time pressure, throwing in some more obstacles and conflict (why stop at just one problem for your lead?), and deepening the consequences for them if they don’t achieve their goal/solve their problem. Even if you’re writing cosy or darkly comic crime, the stakes do need to be high.

 

There needs to be mystery

This doesn’t have to be a murder to solve (in my opinion), but there definitely needs to be something that is unknown (ideally more than one thing), that the reader is desperate to find out. This is what creates suspense and keeps them turning the pages. If there’s no murder, there could for example be a faked death, a missing person, or the threat of death that never materialises. Be aware that crime readers are very savvy, so they will guess at all the obvious explanations.

 

Someone should be in the role of detective

This doesn’t by any means suggest they have to actually be a detective or have a job that’s connected to crime. But they should be in the dark and trying to find answers. Usually, but not always, this will be your lead character. In thrillers, you might have a very slow burn before anything tangible actually happens, so in this case you can play with structure, viewpoint, and chronology to keep readers engaged.

 

There should be lots of suspense and tension throughout

This means unanswered questions, mysteries, reversals, reveals, and the constant threat of danger, loss, or death. Crime readers have little patience for quiet bits or long sections where nothing much is happening. Do you need a twist? Personally I don’t feel you do, in the sense of something that is deliberately misleading or comes out of leftfield, but you definitely need surprises and revelations.

 

Solve it!

Finally, you need to solve the mystery and provide resolution, otherwise your readers are going to get very annoyed! I can think of a handful of books that work without solving the mystery at their core and that’s usually because they are brilliantly written and really more about the experience of being involved in a crime than the solution. So make sure you do eventually figure out what’s going on, even if you didn’t know at the start, and wrap up your loose ends.

Photo of Claire McGowan, Faber Academy's Writing Crime tutor

Claire McGowan is a writer of crime and literary fiction, and has also published women’s fiction as Eva Woods. She was born in Northern Ireland and now lives in London.

 

Claire’s first novel, The Fall, was published in 2012 and has been followed by several bestsellers, radio plays and screenplays. Claire also ran the UK’s first MA in crime writing for five years, and regularly teaches creative writing. She has seen almost twenty former students go on to be successfully published.

 

Claire teaches on our online Writing Crime course.

Have you ever wanted to write a crime novel, but don’t know where to start? Do you want to learn the techniques to get going, and find the confidence to put your ideas down on paper? In our twelve-week Writing Crime online course, you will learn all the important techniques you need to write a successful novel in the crime or thriller genre, as well as gaining help with the important choices you need to make before you start.

With lectures to live-stream or watch on demand, exercises to complete from home, and reading materials on each topic, you can move through this course at a pace that suits you.

Find out more here.

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