HOW TO WRITE A CRIME STORY
by Saxby Smart, brilliant schoolkid detective
Before you can WRITE a detective story, you have to be clear about what DEFINES a detective story.
It's a story with a Detective Inspector in it, dum-dum! So- and-so Of The Yard, or Some Guy In A Trenchcoat With A Whispery Voice. Right?
No, not necessarily. A detective story doesn’t HAVE to include any official kind of investigator. The detective in a detective story can be any character you like.
A detective story is not defined by WHO appears in it, but by WHAT HAPPENS in it: there is always a MYSTERY, and there is always an INVESTIGATION into the mystery (sounds obvious, I know, but crime fiction is essentially a simple recipe!).
Provided that the MYSTERY and the INVESTIGATION are both there, the story itself can unfold in various ways. For example:
1. Lady Moneybag’s ruby tiara is stolen! Nobody (including the readers of the story) know who did it. Inspector Cleverperson turns up, examines the evidence, and reveals the truth! This is what you might call the standard, ‘traditional’ detective story plot.
2. Strange things happen. Our detective investigates various clues and gradually uncovers the cause of the mysterious goings-on. This plot turns things back-to-front: we follow the investigation and only discover the true nature of the mystery when we get to the end of the story.
3. A crime takes place! We, the readers, know exactly who did it and why, right from the start! The story is all about how the investigation proceeds, and how the good guys outwit the bad guys to uncover the truth.
Meanwhile, the inner mechanics of crime stories usually involve various Plot Devices. Some of my personal favourites are:
PLOT DEVICE 1: The Red Herring
A red herring is a clue which looks like a clue but might not be a clue. Or maybe it is. Or maybe it’s not…
Red herrings are things which may (or may not!) be deliberately misleading – elements which steer the reader and/or the fictional detective into following up clues which are irrelevant or fake. Or are they…?
(Why it is called a ‘red herring’? Nobody really knows. It’s been supposed that it’s linked to hunting dogs in ye olden days being deliberately led off the scent of prey using something stinky such as a herring. But it may be a phrase made up in the early 19th century by the writer William Cobbett. So the definition of ‘red herring’ could itself be… a red herring!)
PLOT DEVICE 2: Who did it? Nooo waaaay!
One popular trick of the trade used by mystery writers is to make the least likely suspect the guilty one, so that it’s a big surprise when you find out who committed the crime. For instance, you could have a story full of shifty-looking people dressed in stripey shirts and
eye masks, yet the guilty one turns out to be…the tea lady!
PLOT DEVICE 3: A sneaky disguise.
It’s quite common in detective yarns to find that a character isn’t quite who you thought they were. Maybe Character A has a secret link to Character B that nobody knew about, or perhaps Character C and Character D turn out to be the same person in disguise. The simplest form of this plot device is to have the crime committed by a certain type of person (eg. a very tall woman with long hair), and then reveal that it was actually a totally different type of person all along (eg. a short man on stilts wearing a wig).
PLOT DEVICE 4: We’re trapped!
If a mystery writer wants to encourage the reader to turn detective and try to solve the mystery for themselves, one useful plot device is to have everything happen in some kind of enclosed situation. For example, in an isolated country house during a violent storm (when nobody can get in or out), or on a boat in the middle of the ocean (when nobody can get on or off). The idea is to have only a few characters, and thus only a few suspects, and thus an easier mystery for the reader to solve. This plot device most often turns up on TV or in movies, because it makes the drama cheaper to produce!
PLOT DEVICE 5: You can’t trust ‘em, Inspector!
A particularly crafty plot device. Our detective talks to an important witness; the witness gives interesting information; the detective carries on with the investigation, using this information as crucial evidence. Then something happens which throws a spanner in the works: it turns out the witness might have had a reason to lie. Did they? Can our detective trust the evidence? Was the witness telling the truth or not?
There are LOADS of others. Sometimes, one mystery is used to cover up a second. Sometimes, absolutely nobody in a story can be trusted. And sometimes, the old cliché ‘the butler did it’ turns out to be true! Try it for yourself. It's actually much harder than you might think.
Saxby Smart is a brilliant schoolkid detective who's really bad at Maths but really good at logical deduction. Eight volumes of his casefiles are available now, the latest of which is called “Secret Of The Skull”. The above is adapted from his new non-fiction title “Saxby Smart's Detective Handbook”, in which he investigates the world of real-life crime as well as famous fictional detectives.