Did you start writing a Crime story, because you love them, and then find yourself stuck along your pursuit? Did you just realize you’re missing a MacGuffin? And what about those Red Herrings; what do fish have to do with Crime? Do you know which one of the fourteen Crime subgenres your story falls under? Are you wondering if you’ve met all the conventions and obligatory scenes of the Crime story?
Look no further. I’ve scrutinized the genre and compiled everything you need to know to write a Crime story, and I’m ready to reveal the secrets others have hidden from view.
What is a Crime story?
“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
The Crime Story is an arch-plot (Hero’s Journey) or mini-plot (multiple characters) external genre. It begins with a crime, builds with an investigation or completion of the crime, and pays off with the identification of the perpetrators or their escape from identification. It is resolved with the perpetrator/s being brought to justice or getting away with the crime.
What are the Global Values of Crime?
The global values at stake describe the protagonist’s primary change from the beginning of the story to the end. In a Crime story, that change runs along the spectrum of Justice, Unfairness, Injustice, and Tyranny.
What are the Controlling Ideas of Crime?
A story’s controlling idea (sometimes called the theme) is the lesson you want your reader to come away with. It’s the meaning they will assign to your story, usually unconsciously. A controlling idea can be stated in a single sentence that distills the argument your story attempts to make through narrative.
It’s made up of the big value change at the climax of your story, plus the specific cause of that change. The controlling ideas of the Crime Genre can be either cautionary (negative, what not to do) or prescriptive (positive, what you should do).
Positive: Justice prevails when the protagonist overpowers or outwits their antagonist.
Negative: Injustice (possibly tyranny) reigns when the antagonist outwits or overpowers the protagonist.
For the Caper and Heist Subgenres, consider the controlling ideas put forth by Kim Kessler:
Positive: Crime pays / [Poetic Justice] prevails when people band together to cheat the system but never cheat each other.
Negative: Poetic Justice fails when people set out to cheat the system together but end up cheating each other.
Editor Tip: Don’t worry if the controlling idea of your story is generic as well. Readers will never see this statement. The important thing is that you have a guide for your story so you don’t miss the clues and fail to solve the case of a well-written Crime story. Controlling ideas are your compass. When in doubt about where your story should go next, review your controlling idea. See Chapter 34 in The Story Grid book, or The Big Takeaway.
What is the Core Emotion of Crime?
Every genre has a core emotion; the reason audiences are attracted to the type of story you’re telling. Audiences are drawn to crime stories in order to experience the intrigue of solving a puzzle and the security of seeing justice done in the end, without facing real crime or real injustice.
What are the Obligatory Scenes of Crime?
Shawn Coyne describes obligatory scenes as “must-have scenes for paying off readers’ expectations as set up by the conventions of the genre.”
In any genre, if you leave out an obligatory scene for that genre, you’ll have a story that doesn’t work.
The obligatory scenes of the Crime Genre are:
An inciting crime or an incitement to commit a crime. There must be victims, especially in stories where the event is seemingly victimless (e.g.the 2008 financial crisis). For most subgenres, the inciting crime is indicative of a master criminal. In the Heist or Caper subgenres, the inciting incident is often the bringing together of the crew or beginning the plan for the crime.
The protagonist is actively trying to solve a crime or a puzzle and either bring the antagonist to justice or, in the case of heist and caper stories, escape justice themselves.
There is a “speech in praise of the antagonist.” The cunning or brilliance of the antagonist must be praised by one or more characters or shown in a revelation. In a Caper or Heist story, the protagonist criminal usually praises those making their crime difficult to pull off.
The protagonist must discover and understand the antagonist’s MacGuffin.The protagonist learns what the external antagonist’s object of desire is.
The protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the antagonist fails.
Exposure of the criminal or the completion of the caper/heist is the core event of the crime story. This is the big scene audiences are waiting for.
The global resolution of the story is when the criminal is brought to justice or gets away with the crime.
What are the Conventions of Crime?
There is a MacGuffin driving the story and investigation forward. The MacGuffin is always something the antagonist wants but can be the driving force the protagonist has for beating the antagonist (the protagonist and antagonist might be vying for the same love interest, award, place of status, etc). It can be tangible (jewels, documents, money) or intangible (greed, love, power). The MacGuffin can be the goal the protagonist is striving for and the reason for their overwhelming odds.
Editor Tip: The MacGuffin must be plausible and valuable, a desire that will push the characters to obtain and fight for it. The MacGuffin must tie into the story logic you’ve built be a believable want of the antagonist and relate, in some way, to the protagonist’s internal genre arc. As a story driver, the quest for the MacGuffin must create conflict, tension, and emotion.
There are investigative Red Herrings. These are seemingly revelatory false clues that mislead the protagonist/investigator.
Editor Tip: Red herrings should be compelling enough to lead the protagonist away from the villain, but the protagonist must ultimately identify them as irrelevant. Red herrings are progressive complications that add tension to the story while challenging the reader’s ability to solve the crime ahead of the investigator.
The antagonist makes the investigation (not necessarily the inciting crime) personal to the protagonist.
Editor Tip: Often, the criminal is attempting to manipulate the investigator or victim into identifying the wrong person as the perpetrator of the crime. In a Caper or Heist, the criminals need the antagonists/victims to behave in a predictable manner for their original plan to work.
There is at least one shapeshifter or hypocrite character capable of directly impacting the protagonist. This is a secondary character who says one thing and does another.
Editor Tip: Usually the shapeshifter first appears as a helper and then become a hinderer, but this can be reversed. The shapeshifter’s levels of antagonism can vary greatly between characters and stories. Your criminal can be a shapeshifter as well.
There is a ticking clock. The protagonist has a limited time to solve the crime or puzzle. It may be that the antagonist is going to commit future crimes, do further evil, destroy evidence, or escape.
Editor Tip: Stakes do not have to be life and death but they have to be meaningful to the protagonist. If you can tie these personal stakes into the protagonist’s internal genre (why they must solve the crime or pull off the caper) then all the better. To enhance the clock effect, unfold the story in a short, urgent space of time.
There is a clear threat of escalating danger for the protagonist’s mental or physical health/safety. The complications for the protagonist get progressively more difficult.
In addition to genre-specific conventions, subgenre-specific conventions and tropes are required.
Editor Tip: Read the masterworks in you chosen subgenre and analyze them for additional conventions and tropes.
What are the subgenres of Crime?
The more you study these subgenres and analyze their boundaries against contemporary stories, the less distinct they will seem. In time, perhaps, the subgenres will evolve, degrade, and render this list antiquated.
First, let’s divide the Crime Genre by categories; the Murder Mystery and Other.
The Murder Mystery is a complex, external story providing the audience clues and false leads from which the identity of the perpetrator of the crime may be deduced or misidentified before the solution is revealed in the climactic scene. The subgenres composing the Murder Mystery category are:
Master Detective: The protagonist is a competent and experienced detective. Examples of this subgenre are The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Cozy: The investigator/protagonist is usually a woman, an amateur, and living in a small community where the crime was committed. Profanity, sex, and physical violence are absent or treated humorously. Antagonists are usually able to give a rational explanation for their crime after being identified. An example of this subgenre is The Cat Who Read Backwards and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries.
Historical: The setting of the story and the crime has some historical significance and the story is set in the past. An example of this subgenre is The Name of the Rose, Dead Man’s Blues, and A Necessary Evil.
Noir/Hardboiled: (American) Distinguished by the unsentimental portrayal of sex and violence, the protagonist confronts danger and engages in dangerous and often criminal activity. Includes a morality theme. Examples of this subgenre include The Maltese Falcon and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Also, see the Editors’ Roundtable Podcast on Double Indemnity.
Paranormal: The protagonist must confront events or phenomena such as telekinesis, clairvoyance, or ghosts (beyond the scope of current scientific understanding) to solve a crime. An example of this subgenre is Dead Until Dark and Murder on a Ghost Ship.
Police Procedural: The protagonist is employed by the police, FBI, CIA, or the like. Writers attempt to convincingly depict the activities and procedures of the police force or investigative group. This includes the Forensic stories in which the protagonist is usually a medical examiner or pathologist using evidence from the crime to identify the antagonist/killer. Often a mini-plot with multiple protagonists working together to solve a crime. An example of this subgenre is Eleven Days, works by Louise Penny, and most television police procedural series.
Other Crime Subgenres
Crime stories that fall outside the category of the Murder Mystery are:
Organized Crime: Stories of criminal enterprises, usually for profit and power. Includes terrorist groups, well organized gangs (mafia, crime syndicate, protection or false law enforcement), and business persons forcing people to do business with them. Other organizations such as governments, militaries, police forces, and corporations can use organized-crime methods to conduct their activities using dominance derived from their formal status as social institutions. An example of this subgenre is Breaking Bad.
Caper: These stories are told from the point of view of the criminals, who are amateurs. In these stories, the audience often roots for the criminals rather than the investigators, who appear as the antagonists. These stories typically involve larceny rather than violence, and tend to involve faceless power structures (corporations, governments) who won’t miss the money. Suspense is often driven by whether or not all team members will remain loyal to one another. There are a lot of similarities between this story and the Performance Genre. An example of this subgenre is Waking Ned Devine. Also, see the Editor Roundtable Podcast on Mad Money.
Heist: Like the Caper, the Heist is told from the point of view of the criminals, who are the protagonists. A key difference between Caper and Heist is that the criminals in the Heist are professionals operating under seemingly impossible odds, often motivated by revenge. Criminals must demonstrate competency and an “honor among thieves” ethic. There are a lot of similarities between this story and the Performance Genre. Examples of this story are Ocean’s Eleven and (my favorite) Sexy Beast.
Courtroom: The major characters are lawyers and their employees involved in proving their cases, whether defending the innocent or guilty. Some standard tropes include wrongful accusations and suppression of evidence. An example of this subgenre is Presumed Innocent.
Newsroom: These stories involve journalists and usually the suppression of an important news story. The journalist investigates the case and police often are inept or corrupt. Examples of this subgenre are All the President’s Men and The Paper.
Espionage: The major characters are spies, usually working for an intelligence agency. The story usually centers on creative and dangerous methods of gaining evidence or clues. An example of this subgenre is The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.
Prison: These are stories that take place in prisons or detainment camps, and often involve an escape plan. Prison stories often have strong Society elements. Examples of this subgenre are The Shawshank Redemption and Escape from Alcatraz.
Editor Tip: Any of the subgenres can include Parody of that genre.
Why do internal genres
go well with a Crime story?
In the best Crime stories, the main protagonist has an internal genre arc.
Editor Tip: You don’t have to meet all of the obligatory scenes and conventions of the internal arc in your story. Incorporate most of them into the scenes of the Crime story rather than creating scenes stand alone scenes for the secondary genre.
Choose a conflict important to your characters. A character’s investment in an outcome increases investment from the reader.
If your protagonist is knowingly doing wrong, consider the Morality Genre for their internal arc.
If your protagonist making the wrong choices or assumptions because of their immaturity, lack of knowledge, and/or naivete, consider the Worldview Genre for their internal arc.
If your protagonist is trying to fit in, gain an improvement in (or maintain) their financial, professional, or social rank, consider the Status Genre for their internal arc.
If you are writing a series, consider starting your protagonist closer to the bottom of the hierarchy of needs and have them move their way up a notch in each book to keep them moving forward internally. The Story Grid Gas Gauge has the hierarchy set out by genre.
Editor Tip: In many series, the arcs start at Morality, moves to Worldview, then to Status. If there is a fourth book, protagonists often circle back and learn something associated with Worldview or it switches to a Performance (external) or Love (external) story. Keep in mind, even Performance and Love need a backend internal story.
Identify your protagonist’s need on the Story Grid Gas Gauge and narrow your internal genre from there. Determine the want and need of your antagonist. How are they related to want and need of the protagonist? What’s the MacGuffin, aka the villain’s object of desire? These wants and needs will drive your story and determine your internal genre. Create dynamic protagonist and antagonist characters with opposing goals.
On Reader Expectations of Genre:
Remember, you’re not writing a Thriller. That’s an entirely different genre, incorporating aspects of the Action, Crime, and Horror Genres (and, in the case of Erotic Thriller, also includes a Love story).
A Crime story need not have much action or any horrific scenes. Don’t be afraid to slow your story down to illuminate the MacGuffin, to get sidetracked with the red herrings, and to let the protagonist make some serious mistakes. Allow tension to ebb and flow. Keep your reader asking questions.
Additional Notes on Writing the Crime story:
Show us how your protagonist reacts instead of telling paragraphs of their thoughts. Ground the reader in scene with scent, touch, sounds, gut reactions, and dialog. Characterization is not what the protagonist is thinking. It’s demonstrated in their actions. Example: Don’t tell us your character is scared. Show them begging for their life, shaking, or crouching from danger.
Don’t be afraid to use humor. If your reader alternates between laughter and intrigue, you’re probably on the mark.
On Moving to the Next Level in Your Writing:
Read thoroughly in the Crime Genre and compare your work to the masterworks and the guidelines here. The best way to move toward innovation is knowing what others have already done.
Now, you have the basics of the Crime Genre and are ready to finish that story. When you’re ready for an editor, please contact me for a free 30-minute phone consultation on your work.
I wish you the best with your writing.
You can read more blog posts I’ve written at:
Additional suggested resource: How to Write Crime Fiction
Images credits for the Gas Gauge and Crime Slider infographics to Anne Hawley. Special thanks to Anne Hawley for editing this post.