How to plot a thrilling crime novel

September 1, 2020

So you want to plot a thrilling crime novel, but don’t know where to start? Never fear, I’ve got you covered. Sometimes it can seem daunting when all you have is a blank page and idea. And the last thing you want your novel to be is boring or obvious for the reader.

Many people will argue about how to plot a book, but a crime novel is very specific, in that they’re very difficult to write off the top of your head. I spend about three months plotting my novel before I even start writing. It’s essential in crime fiction that you have a structure.

So I’ve pulled together twelve tips to help you plot your crime novel.

Start with character

Character is incredibly important in crime fiction. We all remember those great investigators – Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Phryne Fisher – because they’re original. Their personalities determine their approaches to solving crimes.

We’ve all read a lot of generic crime novels about a jaded alcoholic cop with nothing to lose, but they’re not particularly interesting because it’s a tired trope. Think outside the cliche and try to come up with a unique investigator. This will then determine how they investigate the crime.

Think about what you’re trying to say

Crime fiction is a great vehicle for talking about the big picture problems in life – truth and justice, life and death. Think about why you’re telling the story. How do you want your reader to feel at the end of reading your book. Entertained? Sure. But is there a deeper meaning you can imbue in your scenes and structure?

I particularly like John Truby’s approach to storytelling in The Anatomy of Story. He talks about finding the ‘common moral problem’ which then drives the narrative. It’s not that you’re trying to moralise to your reader. You’re trying to say something universal about the world, and maybe, how it can change.

Use an existing structure

If you’re new to crime writing (or old), it doesn’t hurt to use an existing story structure. Some famous story structures include:

  • The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
  • The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
  • Freytag’s Pyramid
  • The Three-Act Structure

There are more structures in the world, and you don’t need to use them as is. Always take what is appropriate for your story and leave the rest. Sometimes story structures can help you understand how a narrative should flow, and these are especially worth studying for beginners.

Up the ante

Crime novels always need to up the ante. You don’t want the conflict to decrease in a crime novel. You start at a certain level of threat, as established by the crime, and increase the threat to the investigator over the course of the story. You want to make sure that the place where you start is not more scary than the place you end. This will make sure the reader is compelled to keep reading.

Don’t be afraid of conflict

Conflict drives a story forwards. Don’t be afraid to introduce or increase the conflict in your story. If everyone agrees with the investigator and gives up clues easily, then the book is going to get very boring very quickly.

See how you can play off the investigator from different aspects of conflict – their work, their home life, their internal struggle.

Keep the investigator active

I’ve read a few crime novels where the investigator sits at home and people turn up to their house to give them clues. Unless this is the Big Lebowski, you should always keep your investigator active. A clue should feel like a hard-won achievement, not a gift.

Add a reversal

A reversal is the great twist in your novel, and it’s a way to make your story really shine. Readers love twists and turns. If you can write one that upends the entire story without being unbelievable, readers won’t be able to forget your book. A great example of this is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, or the classic, Sixth Sense.

But if you’re just starting out as a crime writer, know that you don’t have to include a reversal in order to write a successful crime novel. It takes a lot of skill to pull one off, because the twist has to be hinted at throughout the story without being obvious.

Avoid cliches

We all know the classic crime cliche of a femme fatale walking into a PI’s office. But like the jaded detective, it’s an old trope from the 1920s.

There are three ways to deal with cliches: avoid them, subvert them, or write the best damn cliche you possibly can. Whenever you find yourself veering into cliched territory, think about the opposite of what you’re doing. What could you do that is unexpected or unusual? How can you subvert this trope?

When I was writing Double Exposure, I wanted to subvert the trope of the alcoholic detective, so I made the main character a teetotaller after he had committed acts of alcohol fuelled violence. These little twists can make your book more interesting and unique.

Use sticky notes and notebooks to document your work

On a practical note, I use post-its to map out the plot of my novels. I write down everything I want to happen, one scene per sticky note, and put them up all over the wall. These move around a lot.

While I’m doing that, I’ll also take lots of detailed notes in a single notebook. That way I don’t lose any of my ideas. I’ll spend months thinking about the story before I even write it, that way I can tell the best story I can.

Use maps for inspiration

Maps are another way I get inspiration for my plots. They’re really helpful for figuring out where events happen, and what happens next. For example, if this crime happened here, what can they investigate around the area? And how do they get there? What is this neighbourhood like? Who are the kinds of witnesses who would inhabit here?

Research your novel

Researching your novel is another way to spark plot points. I’ve had so many ideas for fiction stories come to me while reading non-fiction. It also adds authenticity to your work. Say you’re writing a procedural crime novel, you’ll want to know how investigations work wherever you’re setting you’re novel. In researching, sometimes you’ll discover a factoid that can add an extra layer to your story, or send it in a direction you didn’t know it could go.

Study your favourite crime fiction

Finally, study your favourite crime novels! You can learn a lot by simply breaking down the structures of books you admire. While you’re reading, jot down the key plot points of the book, and any turning points. Look at how the author has escalated the stakes in the story. How did they drop hints of the twist?

When you’ve finished the book, look at the overall picture of how they structured the novel and make a timeline of the key points. This can help you get an understanding of how they wrote a compelling story.

I hope these tips have helped you learn how to plot a thrilling crime novel. As always, have fun, follow your imagination, and get writing!

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