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John Crossan

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Expert Tips for Writing a Crime Novel

There is a massive amount of crime novels that have been written over the past several decades. Some of them have broken all the rules or skirted the conventional barrier to deliver a story that is intriguing, fascinating, and compelling. 

For the reader, this can leave them wondering what it was behind those stories that made them stand out. What was it that made them so irresistible?

This is why many writers, published or unpublished, would agree that the structure of the story is where it all begins.

Whether you have published a number of novels or are a new crime writer with a new and original idea for a story, then you might have considered creating a manuscript to self publish or send to an agent.

However, you may find that the outline or structure of the story that’s needed to grab the reader’s attention and execute your idea, is lacking for some reason that you cannot explain. But, there are some key areas that as a writer, you can focus on to keep your writing flowing as it should. 

Synopsis and outline

Writing a good crime story means that you will need a plot. All good stories begin with a synopsis of how the events are going to play out and a timeline of how each will occur. Think of the synopsis as the drawing of your story, whereas your outline will be the blueprint or the architecture of your tale. 

The key difference between the two is that the synopsis will help you to understand how your story will look, and the outline decides how events or actions will unfold.

Some writers choose to follow through with events contained in their story in a linear fashion, but this can sometimes become a little predictable and in the worst-case scenario, boring. Thousands of crime novels have been published, meaning that readers will often appreciate something that makes them think, or question their own assumptions and conclusions. 

Over the past few years, there has been an increase in the unconventional and non-linear timelines in crime stories, indicating that the audience is in fact, hungry for those novels that present their arrangement of events and facts a little bit differently. 

Thought provoking questions 

One of the key elements of a good crime story is that it raises a number of questions in the beginning. The what, when, why, and who of events and situations can keep the reader guessing all the way to the end of the book if done correctly.

The time frame of answering those questions depends entirely on the writer. Some questions may be cleared up in the early stages of the story, some may remain hanging and unanswered right til the end, or at a critical juncture. 

Keeping the story fresh and alive in this way can keep the reader fixed on turning the pages.

Many books are written that never become a best seller, and it may not just be down to the publisher or because of the marketing performed. One of the biggest reasons books do not become best sellers and fail to make a name for themselves is because they follow a conventional and predictable storyline. Leaving readers feeling as though they have read it all before and know what the ending is before they are more than halfway through the book. 

That is not to say that the conventional style of writing is bad, necessarily, but it will take some expertise to understand how to ask the right questions and pick the correct time to reveal the answers. 

This gradual unfolding of a crime or mystery is what makes the difference to the reader between a compelling tale and a ‘heard it all before’ story. Picking the right time to answer questions large and small will lead the reader deftly through your story, and position critical or key points artfully in front of them along the way.

Some writers will seek out the help of professional ghostwriters, even if it is only to help them devise an intriguing story outline that they can then expand upon.

Characters and players

Antagonists, protagonists, main characters, and more need to be subtly woven through your story and should generate some sort of connection with the reader. Whether it be empathy or an understanding of the character’s motivation, their presence should elicit some sort of emotional response from the reader. 

As in life, characters in a book are not usually all good or all bad, as humans we are complex multi-faceted beings, and so are the characters in your book. Layering their personality with traits, foibles, and idiosyncrasies can make them appear all the more real to the reader, with conflicting emotions and agonizing choices that we often face in real life, making them all the more believable. 

Many writers take the time to hint at the character’s back story, giving the reader a glimpse into their history which provides insights and understanding into why they do what they do. Or to explain why they perform the actions that they feel they have no other choice but to follow. 

Characters in a crime novel can be ruthless or kind, savory or unsavory, but above anything else, they should be interesting. 

Danger and Intrigue

While there will be many elements that play into the makeup and plot of a crime novel, danger and intrigue cannot be understated. Will the criminal be caught? How will the detective solve the case? Crime writers are adept and raising the temperature throughout their stories to a boiling point. 

Typically the closer we get to the truth, the riskier and more dangerous the events become with testing conditions, unexpected actions, and surprise turns in events. Spattered throughout a good crime story are often clues that the reader can pick up on, almost turning them into a detective or crime solver themselves. 

This can help readers to feel as though they are a part of or even ‘in’ the book rather than just a reader of it. 


Reading a good crime story can have an interesting effect on people. Some people choose to read this genre as pure escapism, to be entertained and forget their real life for a while. Others are fascinated by the subject matter and wish to explore it. This is why it is imperative that writers deliver a good crime idea properly. In order to do that, your novel will need to unfold at a speed that keeps things interesting while delivering your story’s events, and its characters, in a captivating fashion.