Crime Genre: Justice and Injustice Stories of Mystery and Intrigue

What is the Crime Genre?

An external story in the Crime genre focuses on the Justice / Injustice spectrum while generating feelings in the reader of intrigue (solving the puzzle) and security or personal safety when the perpetrator is exposed.


The underlying question in every Crime story is:

How do you expose defectors from society’s norms, laws, and codes and then punish wrongdoing?

Crime Genre: Justice and Injustice Stories of Mystery, Judicial Systems, and Espionage

What is the Controlling Idea of the Crime Genre?

The universal theme or CONTROLLING IDEA of a Crime story is:

Justice prevails when the protagonist overpowers or outwits his/her antagonist to reveal the truth. But tyranny reigns when the perpetrator outwits the investigator by rigging or outwitting the system.

The Four Core Framework of the Crime Genre

The FOUR CORE FRAMEWORK helps us meet reader expectations by bringing the core of our story into focus to create an irresistible, memorable, and shareable experience for the reader.

Core Need


The core need for safety in a Crime story arises when the inciting crime is discovered. Crime is an existential threat to the security and coherence of society, so the justice-focused protagonist must find the wrongdoers and bring them to justice. A secondary need of returning order to a chaotic world often reflects the protagonist’s inner chaos.

Core Value

Justice and Injustice

Crime stories show readers justice and injustice as well as gradations between and beyond them, including tyranny and unfairness. The protagonist acts on behalf of larger society to pursue justice for agency-deprived victims.

Core Emotion


Before the protagonist exposes the criminal, the reader feels intrigue—a desire to see the puzzle solved. After exposure, the reader experiences satisfaction when “the penny drops” and things finally add up. If the criminal is never exposed, the reader feels cheated. However, criminals often go unpunished in a successful Crime story.

Core Event

Exposure of the Criminal scene

The CLIMAX of the Crime genre is the exposure of the Criminal’s identity. Often the protagonist must choose between their own safety and society’s safety or the victim of the injustice. The root causes of threats to human security are often a mystery. Real life doesn’t always result in justice. This occurrence may be associated with an internal loss of the sense of right and wrong. The exposure of the criminal gives readers a sense of that security when the criminal is exposed.

5 Conventions of the Crime Genre

Genre CONVENTIONS are specific requirements for the story’s ALTERNATE WORLD, AVATARS, or circumstances that create conflict and enable solutions. Conventions set up genre reader expectations. Without these, the reader will be confused, unsettled, or bored and quit reading.

The Crime genre has five necessary conventions:

  • A MacGuffin: This is the antagonist’s object of desire, what the antagonist wants. It’s either conscious or subconscious.
  • Investigative Red Herrings: seemingly revelatory false clues that mislead the protagonist/investigator.
  • Making It Personal. The antagonist needs the protagonist to get the MacGuffin and thus must manipulate them to lead them to success.
  • Clock. There is a limited time for the protagonist or antagonist to act.
  • Subgenre-Specific Conventions. Depending upon the subgenre, other conventions and tropes are required.

6 Obligatory Moments in the Crime Genre

OBLIGATORY MOMENTS are the must-have events, revelations, or decisions and actions that pay off the raised expectations of the Conventions. 

The Crime genre has six obligatory moments:

  • An Inciting Crime. There must be victims, especially in the stories where the event is seemingly victimless (e.g., the 2008 financial crisis).
  • A Speech in Praise of the Villain. The cunning or brilliance of the villain must be praised by one or more characters or shown in a revelation.
  • Discovering and understanding the antagonist’s MacGuffin. This is the key clue that helps the investigator make sense of the inciting crime.
  • Progressively Complicated Following of the Clues. This is the process by which the investigator uncovers the antagonist’s identity.
  • Exposure of the Criminal. This is the CORE EVENT, the big scene every reader is waiting for. 
  • Brought to Justice or Escapes Justice moment, which serves as the global resolution of the story. 

Crime Genre Subgenres

The Crime genre can be further broken down into at least a dozen subgenres, many just within the category of murder mysteries. Subgenres of Crime stories often depend on the characteristics of 1. The protagonist (hardboiled detective, police investigator), 2. the setting (newsroom, courtroom), or 3. the type of crime (heist, caper or espionage).

Murder Mystery

  • Master Detective: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  • Cozy: The Cat Who Read Backwards
  • Historical: The Daughter of Time
  • Noir/Hardboiled: Double Indemnity
  • Paranormal: Dead Until Dark
  • Police Procedural: Eleven Days

Other Crime Subgenres

  • Organized Crime: Breaking Bad
  • Caper: Ocean’s Eleven, Sexy Beast, Mad Money
  • Courtroom: Presumed Innocent
  • Newsroom: All the president’s Men, The Paper
  • Espionage: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
  • Prison: The Shawshank Redemption

“The crime story concerns our desire for justice, and by extension the very security of our social structure. Because it explores a primal need, feeling secure in the fundamental notions of right and wrong, it remains and will always remain at the top of story popularity.” 

— Shawn Coyne

Additional Resources for the Crime Genre

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