Detective stories are a mainstay in the Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense genre—often the second-most best-selling popular fiction genre on Amazon behind romance. Detective stories are attractive to both readers and writers for similar reasons, making them a great choice for those writers looking to craft great stories that sell.
But before you can hit publish on your thrilling detective novel, you first must craft a story readers will love. This is just what I'll cover in this article on how to write a detective story.
- The different kinds of detective stories.
- The common tropes in most detective stories.
- What not to do in one of these crime fiction stories.
- Tips for writing your detective story.
Table of contents
- What is a Detective Story?
- Four Types of Detective Story
- How to Write a Detective Story
- Don't Publish Blind
- How to Write a Detective Story: Solving the Case
What is a Detective Story?
In broad terms, a detective story is one in which the plot is driven by a crime that the protagonist has to solve. Much of the time, the crime is a murder, but this isn't always the case. Whether the protagonist is a detective or a private investigator, the story will feature a cast of likely suspects, the unveiling of clues, and the eventual solving of the case.
This is the basic framework, although there are endless variations. The more you can make your story stand out while still hitting all the tropes readers expect, the better your book's chances of success. And you can do this by keeping some tips in mind as you write.
But before we get to those writing tips, let's look at the different kinds of detective stories.
Four Types of Detective Story
While detective fiction is a subgenre that falls under the mystery heading, it doesn't mean that there's only one type of detective story. Far from it. In fact, there are four overarching types of detective stories to choose from. They each have commonalities and differences, all of which we'll cover below. But keep in mind that it’s possible to have overlap between these story types. Some detective stories fall under more than one heading.
- Police Procedurals
- Hard-Boiled Detective Stories
- Cozy Mysteries
Classic Detective Stories
Classic detective stories are essentially the historical fiction equivalent of the detective genre. These are modeled after the titans of the genre, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and much of Agatha Christie's catalog. They don't shy away from the more violent aspects of crime fiction, but they also don't dwell on them.
The crimes in classic stories often take place in secluded or closed-off places. In fact, the locked-room mystery is a popular plot line in classic crime stories. If not in a locked room, it could be in a mansion or a hotel. The detective is usually highly competent and one step ahead of everyone else.
A few great classic detective stories to check out include:
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe
- The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
- The Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L Sayers
Police procedurals are mostly set in the modern area (or at least post-World War II). They typically follow a police detective as he or she tries to solve a particular case (usually a murder).
Sometimes, the narrative will include the initial crime without revealing the perpetrator so it remains a mystery throughout the book. Other times, the crime happens “off-screen,” giving the reader no additional insight into how it happened. This puts the reader into the same mental space as the detective, allowing them to discover clues as the detective does.
Readers expect authenticity in police procedurals, so they require significant research or firsthand knowledge of the procedures police use to solve a crime.
A few excellent examples of police procedurals include:
- The Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly
- In the Woods by Tana French
- Still Life by Louise Penny
- The Snowman by Jo Nesbo
The hard-boiled subgenre was made popular (some say created) by writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. They often feature down-and-out detectives or private investigators that become emotionally involved in the case they're solving.
In a classic crime novel, the protagonist is often hyper-competent. This isn't so in the hard-boiled subgenre. The flawed protagonists of these stories aren't always on the ball, and they may make some questionable moral decisions throughout the story.
In many hard-boiled stories, the setting is as much a character as the protagonist. They often take place in a tough-as-nails city where everyone is scrambling over each other to survive. This gives these stories the grit they're famous for.
Some hard-boiled/noir stories to check out include:
- The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
- The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
- The Kinsey Millhone series by Sue Grafton
- The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Readers looking for a good whodunit but without the violence and profanity of other detective stories will turn to the cozy mystery subgenre. These stories feature the solving of a crime (usually murder) just like other crime novels. But the detective character is often an amateur, the writing is quirky, and the book is themed around food, pets, or some other lighthearted subject.
The victim and perpetrator are usually unlikable, the setting is often a small town, and there's always a happy ending. For more on this type of detective story, check out our article on how to write a cozy mystery.
Cozy mysteries to read include:
- The Hercule Poirot series by Agatha Christie
- The Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene
- Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke
- The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
Note: There are plenty of detective stories that are more thrillers than mysteries. In a thriller, the protagonist often finds out who the perpetrator is long before the climax. The suspense usually comes from the protagonist trying to stop the antagonist from doing something even more terrible than the crime that started off the book.
How to Write a Detective Story
The following steps should help you get your detective story on the page, no matter which kind you chose to do.
Brainstorm Your Characters
Before you start writing, it's a good idea to determine who your fictional detective will be. If you're writing a police procedural, the character will probably need to be a police officer or someone involved in law enforcement (like a crime scene technician). If it's a cozy mystery, your character may be an amateur or someone with zero detective experience who will have to learn on the fly.
However, there are other specifics even beyond this that it's important to get down. Even if you don't write anything down, try to form a mental picture of not only your protagonist but also the antagonist and any important secondary characters.
Think about things like appearance, age, ethnicity, background, and demeanor. How will you set your character apart from the detectives in other murder mystery novels? Are they married or divorced? Do they have any kids?
These are all things that will influence your character's actions and decisions. But remember that at this stage, nothing is set in stone. You can always change things as you write!
Plan Your Crime
Since every good detective story starts with a crime, you'll want to commit one on paper. Since the detective fiction genre has been around for a while, you'll want to find a way to make your crime unique to keep the reader engaged. While all murder is abhorrent, readers crack open detective novels to escape the humdrum. So giving your crime a unique twist is essential to keeping the reader turning the pages.
Keep in mind that it doesn't have to be a murder. While this is the most common crime in this genre, it could be a missing person, a heist, or one of dozens of other crimes.
If you need inspiration, you only need to look at the news for unique crimes that baffle the imagination. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Just make sure to put your own twist on anything you pull from the news. Use it as a starting point to craft your story.
Depending on your writing style, you may want to write down your idea for your crime in an outline. Or you may want to start writing the prose to see where it takes you.
Include Clues and Red Herrings
The trick to writing a good mystery is giving the reader clues but not making things too obvious. When the criminal is revealed near the end of the book, you want it to make perfect sense in hindsight. After all, a mystery story needs to be a mystery to the reader. If they figure it out quickly, it takes some of the fun out of it.
To do this, you'll need to include red herrings, which are clues that point in the wrong direction. These can help you obscure the real clues that you put into the narrative (or go back and put in the narrative after you've discovered who committed the crime).
Good red herrings are backed by believable suspects with believable motivations. If you want the reader to think the butler did it while directing attention away from Colonel Mustard, then the butler will need to have a good reason to want the victim dead, even if you eventually reveal that he didn't act on that impulse.
Craft a Satisfying Conclusion
The climax of a mystery novel or short story needs to provide a satisfactory payoff. In classic detective stories, the climax often involves the detective exposing the culprit and explaining his or her methods. In a hard-boiled story, there's usually a violent clash with the antagonist. This is also common among police procedurals (which, some argue, are the equivalent of modern hard-boiled stories).
But a satisfying climax isn't just about making it exciting by putting your protagonist or other important characters in danger. It's also about tying everything together. Every clue that you've dropped about the identity of the culprit should culminate in the ah-ha moment of reveal.
This should be done carefully. The antagonist needs to have a reason for committing the crime. When all is revealed and the reason is “he's evil,” or “because she wanted to,” chances are the reader will feel deflated. Worse yet, not having a criminal at all is even more of a letdown. If the murder turns out to be a suicide or accident, then there's no real payoff at the end of the story.
Like stories in other genres, you'll also want to avoid getting your characters out of trouble in the climax through happy coincidence. As a general rule of thumb, luck shouldn't be involved when it comes to your protagonist—unless it's bad luck. Get your character out of trouble by having them use their own ingenuity, crime-solving skills, past experience, or some combination of all of them.
Write a Little Every Day
One of the hardest parts of being a mystery writer (or any kind of writer, really) is developing a strong writing habit. Whether you simply want to write down the story that's in your head or you want to write the next great mystery novel, it all happens one word at a time.
The best way to ingrain a habit like this is to create a manageable daily writing goal. This is one reason why I had a writing goal feature included in my all-in-one writing and formatting tool, Atticus. You can set your goal as low or as high as you want, and you can select which days of the week to record the goal. Atticus will do the rest as you write.
And of course, once you're done writing, Atticus will turn your manuscript into a professional product by formatting it for eBook and print-on-demand.
Don't Publish Blind
Not sure what kind of detective story you want to write? If you love all types of mystery stories and you want the best chances of success, it's a good idea to evaluate what's selling well in the market.
Armed with the correct information, you can allow the market to guide your writing. The mystery genre is a consistently popular one, but the specific type of mystery subgenre could mean the difference between earning some money right away and having to write several books before seeing a return on your investment.
With Publisher Rocket, you can research the mystery genre and its many subgenres to see how much competition there is, whether it's dominated by traditional publishers, and even the average amount of money the top books take in per day.
Once you know which market segment to aim for, you can then write a book you love knowing that you're giving it the best chance of success.
How to Write a Detective Story: Solving the Case
Being a mystery writer can be a truly rewarding and engaging career. But in order to build a full-time income, you need to know how to write a detective story.
Whether you choose a more modern genre or go with a classic detective story, you'll need to be aware of what readers expect. And while each subgenre has its own tropes, I hope this article has given you an overview of how to craft a compelling detective story so you can choose your market and get to writing!
Need some help getting the creative juices flowing? Check out our mystery writing prompts article!