writing crime fictionThe Building Blocks of Crime Fiction

Marg McAlister

For writers who are new to crime fiction, one of the biggest pitfalls is building a plot on a flimsy premise.

That's why it's so important to ask WHY the main character would take certain action. (Why would he take on this case? Why would he bother chasing the criminals when it's not really anything to do with him? Why would he keep chasing the criminals even though they have threatened his family? And so on.)

The following guidelines will help to ensure that the basic plot of a crime fiction novel works. The quality of the finished book is, of course, dependent on the talent of the writer - but at least this will ensure that the framework of the book is realistic.


The Sleuth - why?

  • (Why not police? Why get involved? Why keep following up? Why take certain actions?)

The Victim - why?

  • (Why this person? Why killed or targeted? What is the connection between this person and the sleuth? What is the connection between this person and the villain?)

The Villain - why?

  • (Why kill/target the victim? Why take the actions he/she does? Why in this place at this time?)

The Secondary Characters including suspects - why?

  • (Why are they suspects? Why would they have a reason for targeting the victim? Why are they no longer under suspicion?)

The Plot (hinges on the characters)

  • What is the inciting incident for the story?
  • Is the motivation for all plot action believable?
  • Are there weak points in the plot?

Think about your plot as being like a row of dominoes set to fall. One piece of action should incite the next piece of action. All should be reasonable. All should be believable.

An example of a novel that didn't work for me because the plot seemed far-fetched... I just couldn't believe in the main character's motivation for following up on the missing girl.

Michael Connelly's Chasing the Dime.

The setup:

Henry Pierce has split with his fiancée, and has moved into a new apartment - complete with a new phone number. Unfortunately his new phone number previously belonged to a prostitute, Lilly. Henry is inundated with calls from men soliciting Lilly's services. The plot for the whole book hinges on the fact that he must become curious enough about the previous owner of the phone number to start investigating her disappearance.

Henry, a genius who has conducted ground-breaking research into nanotechnology and molecular RAM, is also about to make the pitch of his life for a 'whale' to invest millions of dollars in his company. Yet he is supposed to be more concerned about a prostitute who previously had his phone number that he starts chasing up what happened to her instead.

His supposed motivation? That his sister Isobelle, many years before, had died on the streets as a prostitute and deep down he considered it 'his fault'.

The outcome of the plot:

Henry's best friend Zeller (an old friend from their hacker days at university) has fallen in with a group of tough undesirables making a killing selling adult entertainment on the Net, and has also entered an agreement with the 'whale' (who wants to protect the interests of the pharmaceutical industry) to get Proteus (the research) for free, tying up the research for decades, by framing Henry for the murder of the prostitute Lilly.

Question: What would be the average person's reaction in this situation (undesirable phone number)?

Michael Connelly's novel has a lot of positive points. Top quality research into nanotechnology and molecular research. Builds tension well. Writes a page-turner... but the whole story is flawed because of the weak motivation for Henry's involvement.

I felt much the same when I read Thomas Harris's HANNIBAL, after really enjoying the two previous books, Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. In HANNIBAL, I thought Clarice Starling's change of personality was just not credible.

Your job as an author:

...is to keep asking 'why'. If the answer is weak or unconvincing, keep searching for an alternative.


Build these in to add interest when things are slow with the main plot.

How to decide on a sub-plot?

First decide on the motivation and main plot points for your main plot.

Then think about what else your main character could have thrown at him or her to complicate her life. It's just like real life - how many times have we all sighed and said "It never rains but it pours!" Just when you think nothing else could possibly happen - it does.

All you need to do is draw on your own life, or the lives of friends, or news broadcasts:

  • your car breaks down and needs major repairs
  • a relative becomes ill and you have to drop everything and rush to the rescue (or dies, and you have to attend the funeral)
  • finances dry up, creditors are at the door and you don't know how you're going to get through.
  • A child runs wild or stays out all night
  • A housefire consumes all your belongings
  • A terrorist act kills or injures friends/family OR causes delays in travel because of added security
  • The main character is injured or held up for days
  • What else? (The list goes on forever!)

Basically, let your main character be worried on two fronts (at least two!)

  • she's chasing the villain, but family problems are eating at her and slowing down her investigation
  • she's desperately trying to sort out financial problems and avoid creditors, while being blocked in her investigations by the police

Look for the way the main plot and the subplots interact in novels you read. In Michael Connelly's book, he was mourning the end of a relationship and trying to make contact with Nic, his ex-fiancee, while trying to track down the mysterious Lilly and hold up his responsibilities at work.


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