Crime stories follow a specific structure, which readers come to expect and feel comforted by.
This structure is present whether we are reading crime fiction, watching film noir or even a TV show about criminal investigations: a murder occurs, the detective attempts to solve the puzzle, the crime is solved and order is restored.
Let’s delve into the finer details of the beginning, middle and end of a crime novel to pick out the key elements of each section.
The diagram below of story structure is my interpretation of an oldie but a goodie – one we’ve probably seen time and again. It shows us how a story should be structured.
Your story requires a beginning, a middle and an end. Or, if you like, three ‘acts’.
We will use the example of a typical 80,000 word book, made up of 5,000 words per chapter.
Act one makes up roughly one quarter of the book and is your introduction to your world, your characters and your first conflict. It will include 4 chapters of 20,000 words altogether. This is roughly 75 pages.
Act two makes up the biggest section of your story, roughly half. This act is the development of your subplots, theme, characters and story. It will include 8 chapters of 40,000 words altogether, which is around 150 pages.
Act three is roughly one quarter and is your final conflict or showdown and the resolution of the story. Let’s go into a little more detail, using the diagram for info. As for act one this will include 4 chapters of 20,000, so around 75 pages again.
The start of your story is where you as the writer go about introducing the foundations of your story: your characters, the conflict, the setting and the theme.
Let’s start with the conflict.
In the structure diagram this is illustrated by one mountain: one peak of tension or conflict. In crime fiction this will usually be your first murder, or discovery of the body.
The characters will also be introduced in the first act. As a rule of thumb in crime fiction, all of the characters of importance to the story will be mentioned in this first section, and by this I mean we should at least meet your main character and the murderer. Consider as a reader for example, the enjoyment you gain from trying to guess throughout the story who the murderer is, only to discover at the end that it was a character we met in passing a few pages ago. Readers will feel cheated if they cannot have guessed the murderer or motive because you hid too much until the very end of the book.
Act one should challenge your main character in some way. If your character is the lead detective on the case, the following might present as challenges:
- your detective is new to the team, or back from a period of absence
- the detective has inner demons they are dealing with
- the detective has to work with someone they dislike
- your detective has to work with someone they have an intimate relationship with
- the case is difficult for the detective because it has links to them personally
- the case is difficult for the detective because it involves a child
The underlying theme should be at least alluded to in the first section. A ‘theme’ is used to say something to your readers about society or the human condition: it could be anything from mental health, the environment, alcoholism, loneliness or a statement about politics. Telling your reader the story of more than just a murder investigation gives your story depth and interest.
It is so important to get act one right because a reader could stop reading any further if they are not enjoying the first few pages. I am a member of several writing Facebook groups, and the question is often asked: “how far will you read into a book if you’re not enjoying it?” The answer usually varies between around three chapters, or 20%-25% of a book. That’s a quarter of the book, the first act in our diagram. So, how can we hook in the reader right up front? Let’s take a look at first lines and prologues.
The first sentence of your story is perhaps the most important of all the sentences you will write. The purpose of the first line is to pique the reader’s interest, to make them want to read more of the story. Or perhaps think of it this way: your first line should introduce a question that you will then spend the rest of the story answering.
To demonstrate what I mean by this I will show some examples of famous first lines and how they relate to the rest of the story:
‘It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen’ – 1984 by George Orwell
Immediately our interest is piqued because of course there is no thirteenth hour in our standard clock. This makes us want to read sentence number two to see if there is further clarification or explanation. Put another way, the question that is introduced is: why are there thirteen hours?
‘The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed’ – The Gunslinger by Stephen King
In this opening sentence we might have more than one question: who is the man in black? who is the Gunslinger? why is one chasing the other? This is an example too of immediately introducing the key characters and the conflict.
Think about whether your first line is an introduction to the story, a character or the theme; alternatively you may choose to start your story at the end. For example, your first sentence could ask a ‘how did I get here?’ type question, for which you spend the rest of the story explaining to the reader.
To Prologue or not to prologue?
Some readers state that they never read the prologue. Personally I find that ridiculous and have read many stories with an intriguing prologue that perfectly sets up the story to follow.
So, what goes into a prologue? This is like a pre-chapter to your story, and will either be set before or after your book.
A prologue set before the story may describe events leading up to your first conflict (e.g. the first murder), or perhaps recount a childhood memory that is pertinent to understanding one or more of our characters later on (e.g. a childhood trauma experienced by the murderer).
A prologue set after our main story may give us a clue as to the outcome of the main events we are about to read (e.g. our detective is stuck in a car hanging off the edge of a cliff – a scene we might reach in the last act).
As a rule of thumb, if we create an exciting prologue, we can stand to skip an explosive opening to our main story, or the reverse if the prologue does not contain much action or conflict.
Stuck in the Middle
The middle of the story is famously the most difficult bit to write. It is also the longest part, making up roughly half of your entire story. It is within this section you should go about building on what we know of the characters, theme, setting and conflict you have already introduced in act one.
We should learn more about your characters in act two, such as their home life, personality, childhood, career or physical description.
Your main character should also face a number of obstacles as the investigation unfolds, shown in our diagram by several smaller mountains leading to the final one. These obstacles might include:
- Misleading evidence – planted evidence, red herrings, lying ‘witnesses’
- Further crimes or murders
- Tension in the investigation – poor relationships within the team, pressure from higher ranks, mistakes, sexual tension
- Personal conflict – alcoholism, failing relationships, injury and illness
Your murderer may also experience their own obstacles, for example feeling regret or guilt over their actions. Planning which obstacles your characters will undergo ahead of starting to write will greatly help you out with this section: the overall aim is for your main character to have changed in some way from the beginning to the end of the story, so how will this occur? Your character might learn from a mistake, or may realise they have a problem or change their point of view on something.
The middle of your story is where you develop your subplots, including your main theme. I will cover theme soon in a separate post.
It’ll probably be a whole lot easier for you if you begin your story already knowing what you want the ending to be. One of the best things about writing crime fiction is what you hide from your reader: the clues and hints to the answer without giving it all away. You can only do this if you know what that answer is right from the outset.
Think of your last act, or mountain, in two pieces: the ‘finale’ and the resolution (sometimes called the ‘denoument’).
The first part, the showdown, is in crime fiction usually the exciting chase and eventual apprehension of the true perpetrator by the hero. Think high drama.
The second part is a time for reflection with the reader. Think of it like your final say before ending your story:
- What lesson do you want the reader to take from the story?
- Do you have something to say about society?
- How have your characters changed over the course of the story?
- Check back to your initial conflicts in act one – are any of these now resolved?
You may choose this act to wrap up any loose ends still left from the main story. Equally, you could decide to leave things open to interpretation. More and more so writers opt for an open ending, a cliff-hanger or to hint at a future story. Many crime stories are now done in collections featuring the same detective: if this is the route you want to go down you may have your character receive their next case at the end, for example.
Over to you
Although this article has explored the usual structure of a story, think equally about turning the structure on its head. Some of the very best writers present the typical crime fiction structure in an entirely new way to surprise the reader. How might you go about this?
Which part of the story do you find hardest to write? Let me know in the comments!