Skip to main content

7 Tips for Writing Crime Fiction

Bestselling author Dana Stabenow shares her top tips for writing the best crime novel possible.

I only wish I’d had this list when I began writing, but 37 novels later, I do have a few things figured out. I don’t follow all these rules slavishly. I say begin with the murder but…often I don’t. Every writer does things differently, so don’t take how someone else writes for your template. I could add that many writers do things differently in different books but that will just make you cry so I won’t. Try everything below once, keep what works for you, and trash the rest.

(Dana Stabenow: More Cozy Than Hardboiled)

1. Begin with the murder. Get into the victim’s head as they die. Make it as real and as awful as you can. This invests the reader with sympathy for the victim no matter how horrible they were in life and lends that much more urgency to your protagonist’s quest to find the murderer. It will make finding the killer that much more urgent for the writer as well.*

*Who would be you.

2. Love your creeps. Put the villain on display and do it early in the narrative. Get your reader invested in the character and then betray the hell out of both of them.

Spoils of the Dead by Dana Stabenow

Spoils of the Dead by Dana Stabenow

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

3. Put your protagonist at risk. Physically, mentally, emotionally, any or all. Liam Campbell jumped out of an airplane (on purpose), was nearly flattened by a herd of walrus, and has been shot at and missed far too many times. We won’t even go into his love life or his family damage. Let’s face it: We’re all a hot mess. Make your heroes human so your readers can relate to them.

Pro tip: Don’t make them drunks or addicts or on the spectrum, because all of those things have been done to death. So to speak.

4. Make your protagonist a hero, if not in his own eyes then in everyone else’s. A hero is better than you and me; that’s why they are heroes and why they deserve their own novel and you and I don’t. How? In the end, the hero always Does the Right Thing and justice is served, if not the law.*

*If you don’t know the difference you’re in the wrong business.

7 Tips for Writing Crime Fiction

5. Never neglect setting.* It’s key to everything that follows. What does it look like, smell like, sound like, feel like? What effect does the setting have on the characters, and why? Once you figure out setting, you can figure out who lives there and after that what they’re up to.

*Maps are always good, for you and for the reader.

6. Decide early on if you’re writing a series or a stand-alone.* Don’t introduce that great character only to kill him off at the end of the first book of a 22-book (and counting) series. Don’t ask me how I know.

*Realize that a book can turn on you at any time, and often will.

(5 Tips for Creating a Believable and Captivating Psychological Thriller)

7. Backstory. Every single character gets one, including the guy who shows up once to deliver the mail. It can be as little as a sentence or as much as a subplot running through the entire narrative. The supporting cast is what makes a great book and what gives a series long legs.

Coda: This is going to sound self-evident, but lately I have read far too many novels in which I cannot find a single character to like, to identify with, to root for. Have at least one person in your book whom the reader can cheer on. If you don’t, you might not lose anyone else but for sure you’ll lose me.

Writing the Thriller Novel

This course can help you to write the novel that today's readers crave—the novel that will put your book on the best-seller list. With in-depth lectures and feedback from your instructor, you'll be ready to write nail-biting suspense and complete a thriller novel that agents can't resist.

Click to continue.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: 6 WDU Courses, an Upcoming Virtual Conference, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce six new WDU courses, a romance writing virtual conference, and more!

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Past experiences taught bestselling author Alan Russell to tread lightly when it came to collaborating on projects. Here, he discusses how the right person and the right story helped him go from a “me” to a “we.”

From Script

Short Film Goals, Writing the Cinematic Experience on the Page and Sundance Film Festival 2022 (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, set your creative goals with a monthly guide to write and produce your short film, provided by Script contributor Rebecca Norris Resnick. Plus, an exclusive interview with Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Monahan, a Sundance Film Festival 2022 day one recap, and more!

Your Story Writing Prompts

94 Your Story Writing Prompts

Due to popular demand, we've assembled all the Your Story writing prompts on WritersDigest.com in one post. Click the link to find each prompt, the winners, and more.

How Inspiration and Research Shape a Novel

How Inspiration and Research Shape a Novel

Historical fiction relies on research to help a story’s authenticity—but it can also lead to developments in the story itself. Here, author Lora Davies discusses how inspiration and research helped shape her new novel, The Widow’s Last Secret.

Poetic Forms

Saraband: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the saraband, a septet (or seven-line) form based on a forbidden dance.

Karen Hamilton: On Cause and Effect

Karen Hamilton: On Cause and Effect

International bestselling author Karen Hamilton discusses the “then and now” format of her new domestic thriller, The Ex-Husband.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: The Ultimatum

Plot Twist Story Prompts: The Ultimatum

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character give or face an ultimatum.

6 Things Every Writer Should Know About Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company

6 Things Every Writer Should Know About Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company

Sylvia Beach was friend to many writers who wrote what we consider classics today. Here, author Kerri Maher shares six things everyone should know about her and Shakespeare and Company.