How to Write a Detective Novel: A Cheatsheet

(This article originally appeared on the Motive Means Opportunity blog. But I assure you I wrote it myself. Just thought it was worth passing on. — M.)

Part One (average length: one to two chapters at most): P.I. meets client. Client describes the case, usually withholding some important information.  In classic noir tales, the P.I. will be sarcastic, jaded, and more than likely attempt to talk the client out of engaging his/her investigative services. But, reluctantly, the detective is hired, and then he/she asks pertinent questions about the case and the people involved. This initial meeting sets up Part Two.

Tips for Part One:

  • Establish a clear setting, which includes not only the physical environment, but the time period as well.
  • Establish the narrative perspective and tone of the book.  Most private eye tales are in either first personor a tight third person narration, but there are exceptions. Regarding tone, ask yourself if you want the book to be funny, serious, whimsical, satirical. . .whatever, just write accordingly. And keep it consistent throughout the narrative.
  • Sprinkle in interesting details about the P.I., but do not, under any circumstances, do an information dump.

Part Two (average length: four to seven chapters, depending on the complexity of the case): P.I. meets/interrogates all relevant suspects/witnesses. He/she asks basic questions that establish each character’s motive, means, and opportunity regarding the crime, all the while taking notes (mental or otherwise).  During this phase, the detective also performs research, collects “clues,” and forms general impressions about the suspects/witnesses and the case at large.

Tips for Part Two:

  • All suspects should have a credible motive, means, and opportunity regarding the crime. Translation: anyone could have been responsible for the crime in question.
  • Create an atmosphere of distrust, especially between the P.I. and all the suspects, but it helps for the P.I. to start to doubt the intentions of the client as well.
  • Establish a clear timeline for the crime. This helps the reader better understand the crime and allows him/her to investigate right alongside the P.I.
  • Write scenes, not chapters. Scenes are based on action; characters in a particular place, hopefully an interesting one, working out the basic dramatic conflict.
  • Periodically have the P.I. briefly summarize what he/she “knows” or “thinks” about the case thus far. Keeps the reader orientated. Helps you, the writer, as well.
  • Keep the pace brisk. Translation: move the story forward, always. Remove any long-winded backstory, exposition, or stalled scenes.

Part Three: (average length: three to four chapters): P.I. narrows the pool of suspects. Accomplish this by eliminating suspects that could not have committed the crime in question. Have the P.I. hone in on his/her favorite suspects and really squeeze them.  At this point, the dramatic tension gets ratcheted up a notch, which helps lead toward the climax and resolution.  Typically, the detective will bark up the wrong tree a bit before discovering the true villain(s). Keeps the reader guessing. Keeps the detective on his/her toes.

Tips for Part Three:

  • Throw in a red herringor two.
  • Have the P.I. involved in a dangerous scuffle/gunfight or two. Helps increase the tension and build toward a satisfying conclusion.
  • End each chapter provocatively—with a startling image, interesting dialogue. . .anything that demands the reader keep reading til the end.

Part Four (average length: two to three chapters): P.I. figures out the culprit.  A showdown ensues (aka: the climax).  Depending on the type of mystery (hardboiledcozy, murder, etc), the climax may or may not involve violence, but remember, there need not be bloodshed in order to create drama and excitement for the reader. Just remember that the ending should be surprising, yet inevitable.

Tips for Part Four:

  • Don’t cheat! No acts of God. No surprise villains. You have to play fair with the reader, which means you should have given the reader just barely enough information to deduce the ending.
  • Make it dramatic! Novels can have flaws and problems (and all of them do), but if you play fair and still wow them in the end, it’s a successful book. And those same readers will want to read another one by you.

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Writer/ Wearer of comfortable pants