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Three Key Elements of Crime Fiction

crime and suspense Sep 25, 2022
elements of crime fiction

The crime genre can be a wonderful playground for writers, where they get to push boundaries, explore human nature, play with reader expectations, and find inventive ways to create suspense. But with so many possibilities, and so many thrilling stories, what are the elements of crime fiction that can make your novel stand out from the crowd and grip readers and publishers alike?

If anyone knows, it’s Tash Barsby, our Deputy Editorial Director and former Commissioning Editor at Transworld Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House – she’s edited many a thriller in her time! In this article, Tash outlines three elements that are fundamental to an engrossing crime story.  

And if you want even more tips, you can see Mark Billingham’s advice on writing crime fiction, Kate Riordan’s favourite suspense-building techniques for crime writers, and Lucy Foley’s insights on locked room mysteries and other closed circle settings – and ever so much more on our blog!  

The appeal of the crime fiction genre

Thrillers and crime fiction have always held a special place in my heart. I’ve always been drawn to a reading experience that unsettles and surprises me, that gives me the opportunity to occupy that ‘armchair detective’ role and try to spot the clues and hints I need to work out the big reveal.

I used to pat myself on the back anytime I did this, and that sense of achievement was one of the big draws of detective fiction. But now, it makes me want to congratulate the author. Because I have learnt that while, undoubtedly, part of my ability to solve the mystery is my sparkling intelligence (...right?), the hard work has all been done by the author to guide me along the investigative journey that makes crime stories so compelling. I’ve been putty in their hands all along.

I’ve always been drawn to a reading experience that unsettles and surprises me, that gives me the opportunity to occupy that ‘armchair detective’ role and try to spot the clues and hints I need to work out the big reveal.

 

My tips for writing and editing crime stories

There are certain editorial notes I find myself repeating on pretty much every edit I do. Rather than harbouring this wisdom all for myself, I wanted to share with you my top tips to keep in mind when it comes to writing, and editing, your novel.

I’ve considered these through a crime/thriller lens but I hope they’ll be useful whether you’re writing crime fiction, particular sub-genres like detective fiction, or a story in any other genre.

hard boiled fiction - whether a short story or full novel - invites readers to solve the crime or investigate the murder
A strong motivation for your characters

For me, the core of any great thriller, crime or detective story is putting a character (or several) in a high-stakes situation, and ensuring the reader really cares about what happens to them. If they don’t care, you’ll never capture a reader’s attention. 

Whilst I don’t necessarily need to like the protagonist in crime novels, I always need to understand them. From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins, all the way through to Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins, writing ambivalent characters who nonetheless have clear-cut motivations has long been a hallmark of compelling crime fiction.

Make sure the reader can recognise why a character is acting in a specific way or making certain choices – especially if they’re choices we don’t agree with, or wouldn’t make ourselves in that situation – so that we stay on their side throughout the story.

If we understand that everything the main character does is working towards their purpose within the novel, it’s easier to walk in their shoes and see things from their point of view, which in turn creates that crucial engagement between reader and character.

Make sure the reader can recognise why a character is acting in a specific way or making certain choices – especially if they’re choices we don’t agree with, or wouldn’t make ourselves in that situation – so that we stay on their side throughout the story.

A phrase I find myself using in most editorial letters I write, whether in response to a crime novel or any other genre, is: is this character earning their place? By which I mean: is this character having enough impact on the outcome of the story? Is there another character who has a similar role, and if so, why do you need both of them?

Naturally, any novel will have some ‘filler’ characters who are purely there to provide background colour to a scene. But if a character is named, and given any semblance of attention within the wider arc, you need to make sure they deserve to be there.

 

Map out characters’ motivations and contributions

Consider, too, how your whole cast of characters will therefore work together in terms of their motivations. Which character has a shared ambition (A) with your protagonist, so will become their ally? Who has the opposite goal (B), so will naturally be their enemy? Might one of your central characters start off wanting A but then something crucial happens that means they start to want B, or vice versa?

Having a character motivation map outlined as you’re editing can help you identify a character you might like to use in an unexpected way to give your novel a surprise twist or reveal – and who doesn’t love one of those in the detective genre and beyond?

Which leads me very neatly on to…

common characteristics of detective stories that don't stick with readers often result in an anti climax and crimes that aren't satisfactorily solved

Breadcrumb twists and reveals

There’s a recent craze for describing crime fiction left right and centre as having ‘a twist you won’t see coming!!!’ (and, yes, I am guilty of this too) – this isn’t to say it can’t be done but pulling off a twist of this kind requires serious creative dexterity. I would argue that nine times out of ten if a reader genuinely cannot see a twist coming, that’s actually somewhat of a negative. It’s a trap that I think a lot of mystery writers fall into with the pressure to write a brilliant twist.

But for me, a plot twist in crime writing is only truly satisfying when a writer has successfully laid the groundwork for it, dropping breadcrumbs for the reader to pick up on. The last thing you want is for a reader to think ‘wait…what?!’ instead of ‘wait…WOW’, which can happen if you hit them over the head with a twist that doesn’t make sense with what’s come before.

A truly unforeseen twist makes it too close to the ‘it was all a dream’ cliché – you want a twist to be clever and earned, otherwise it will simply feel unrealistic and unsatisfying. 

A plot twist in crime writing is only truly satisfying when a writer has successfully laid the groundwork for it, dropping breadcrumbs for the reader to pick up on. The last thing you want is for a reader to think ‘wait…what?!’ instead of ‘wait…WOW!’

Crafting satisfying twists and clues in detective fiction

The best way to do this is to drop subtle clues or ‘breadcrumbs’ throughout that canny readers of detective stories can pick up on.

It’s a balancing act, of course. Whilst you don’t want to give too much away and make it obvious what the big twist or reveal is going to be, readers like to feel clever and put themselves in that armchair detective role. They like to survey the crime scene, analyse forensic evidence, and poke holes in the initial theories the police officer proffers. We all like to play amateur detective and put our proverbial Sherlock Holmes hat on, that’s why we read crime novels!

Good crime writing holds up a mirror to the readers and reflects in a darker light the world in which they live.
—Karin Slaughter

So if your readers can make an informed guess early on, they tend to appreciate it. Of course, you certainly don’t want to lie to the reader or ram your crime fiction full of red herrings. But you do want to mislead them – lay down clues but make them subtle enough so that you can engineer when the answer will fall into place for them. That’s what makes for irresistible and satisfying crime fiction.

To help achieve this, our writing coach Kate Riordan has a fantastic tip: write a list of the secrets you or your characters are juggling, and note down where in the story you drop clues to each one. This way, you can keep track of who knows what and when they know it, so that you don’t squander the clues in your detective story too early.

from edgar allen poe to agatha christie, mystery writers know that the setting of their novels are as important as the murder or other crimes and criminals they explore
Setting/atmosphere in crime fiction

Particularly in thriller/crime fiction, the sense of tension and suspense is greatly enhanced by the atmosphere provided by the setting.

The ‘locked-room mystery’ is a perfect example of this. These are the types of books where you are likely to find reviewers commenting that the setting feels like a character within itself, such as Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

This is one of a few famous novels that show how setting can be integrated into the very fabric of your character’s experience: in Rebecca, Manderley represents the memory of Rebecca, and – spoiler alert – it is only when Manderley is destroyed that our unnamed narrator can truly start her life with husband Maxim de Winter. Manderley takes on an emotional life of its own, and so becomes at once both a driver for atmosphere and also associated with a character’s development within the story.

 

Characters’ interactions with scene and setting can be revealing

The way in which a character looks at the world, and the resulting descriptions, alert the reader to the type of personality they are.

We can see this in plenty of other novels, both within and beyond the realms of crime fiction. Christopher’s description of discovering the dead body of a dog at the start of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is so removed from the reader’s expectation of how a child coming across such a sight would react that we instantly know there is something about Christopher that sets him apart and gives him a point of difference.

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.
—Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Lee Child’s famous character Jack Reacher might walk into a room and immediately identify the exits, or the position of something that can be used as a weapon. As such, we recognise that this is a man used to fighting for his own survival.

If your novel takes place in a particular location, think about how and why you are putting your characters in this setting, and why the story can only take place there. What pressures will your characters come under, and how will this exacerbate or change their behaviour from what we might expect in a more regular setting?

 

Consider sensory effects and how they can build suspense

Setting will form the backdrop to a novel as a whole but you may want to ramp it up for a particular scene or moment.

The descriptions you use to paint the picture of a certain place will encourage a more concrete or sensory experience for the reader, allowing them to transport themselves into the scene. Think of it as giving them a verbal photograph – what details are you going to zoom in on and highlight, and why?

This is an extension of the old writer/editor favourite ‘show, don’t tell’. It involves the writer taking time to show the picture through sensory details, careful word choices and precise language. What can the character, hear, see, smell, taste or feel in the particular environment and how does this affect our understanding and engagement of what they are doing in that current scene?

A character walking blindfolded into a room might find themselves in grave danger, moments away from death – or they could be the subject of a heartfelt surprise birthday party.

Put your reader in your character’s shoes and entice them with little hints through these sensory details and you’ll create crime fiction they can’t put down.

 


 
 
tash barsby on the elements of crime fiction

Tash Barsby

Deputy Editorial Director at The Novelry

Before joining The Novelry, Tash was a Commissioning Editor at Transworld Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House, home to authors including Kate Atkinson, Dan Brown, Richard Dawkins, Paula Hawkins, Rachel Joyce and Sophie Kinsella. Prior to that, Tash amassed a wealth of experience at Hachette Children’s Books, Vintage Books, Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. As an editor, Tash creates a collaborative process, considering everything from minute details to narrative cohesion. 

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