Scene of the Crime

Scene of the Crime

By Shane P. Carr  

©2001, Shane P. Carr  

Did you ever want to write a mystery or crime story, but didn’t know where to begin? Perhaps you have an idea but you are not exactly sure how to develop it into a suspenseful story.  Maybe you just want to make your characters and scenes a bit more realistic. No matter what you reason, your goal is to create some compelling and suspenseful crime fiction. In the following article I offer you a few of the key ingredients necessary for such fiction.

Mystery and crime writers have a few obstacles before them that writers of other genres do not. In developing a good crime story, the author must be able to think backwards to the scenes that happen before their story begins.

 Let’s say, for instance, that I am writing a story about a serial killer. As the author, I must envision the crime as it happens as well as the motive and actions that lead up to it. I must also be able to see what mistakes the villain will make that enable the hero to solve the crime.


When creating the villain for a crime or suspense story you need to focus on the following:


  • The villain’s background. Who was he/she prior to committing the crime?  This includes the character’s family, profession, hobbies, interests, social status, etc. A clear view of this character’s normal life must be established. The background should also include the character’s phobias and weaknesses. This will help your hero develop a psychological profile on your villain. In turn, your hero will begin to think like your villain.


  • Motive. Why did the character commit the crime? What would he/she gain by committing the crime?  The motive can usually be drawn from the character’s background or an event that affected the character’s life. A pattern of abuse or psychological disability can lead the character to commit violent crimes.  A man who is homeless or poor may decide to steal, either for survival or just to live his life more comfortably. A woman who catches her husband being unfaithful may be hurt enough to plan his, or perhaps his lover’s, murder . In any case, the character’s motive is the driving force behind why he or she committed the crime. 


  •  MO or Modus Operandi: This is the method the villain will use to commit the crime. Most people who commit crimes regularly have a repetitive pattern, especially in the case of violent criminals. Does the villain strangle his victims with a certain type of rope? Does he leave a rose at the scene? Is the crime scene organized in a certain way? Does each crime take place on a college campus or near a certain truck stop? Does the villain target only women or men? Does he target a certain ethnic background? Perhaps the villain is a thief who only steals a certain type of car or only robs certain types of businesses. These are but a few examples for developing you characters MO. Your choices in this area are nearly limitless. Just keep in mind that the MO should make the crimes unique to your villain and convey something about him or her to the reader.


Once you have developed your villain’s background, motive and MO, you must than envision the crime happening. Some writers choose to begin their stories with the crime as it occurs. Other writers like to start the story with the police or hero arriving at the scene of the crime. Either way works. However, at this point, it’s a good idea for you, as the author, to already know how your hero solves the crime. You should have a general idea of what clues will be found and which supporting characters witnessed the crime.


In all criminal investigations, the investigators will develop an initial list of potential suspects. The list will include people who may have had a grudge against the victim (Motive), as well as a list of suspects previously convicted of a similar crime (MO).


The list of possible suspects is one of the crime or mystery writer’s most useful tools. The list allows the writer to add twists and cast doubts as to who the real villain is. This will increase the suspense of the story and keep readers guessing until the end.


When you have this figured out, you can begin writing your story, leading your hero through a serious of events that help him/her to solve the crime. Watching police dramas on television or reading some good mysteries/crime dramas should help you in this area. Take for instance ‘Law and Order’ or ‘The Profiler’. Each show is a prime example of criminal investigations. Another prime example is Andrew Klavan’s novel ‘True Crime’ in which an investigative reporter discovers a death row inmate scheduled for execution is innocent of the crime and, in turn, must build enough evidence to prove it. In each of these, pay attention to how the characters develop a profile of the villain as well as other potential suspects. Examine the techniques used to investigate and question potential witnesses and possible suspects.


Once you have tuned yourself to thinking like an investigator, writing your story should become easier. Luckily there are plenty of resources for writers to learn about criminal investigations and criminal profiling. A quick trip to your local library or bookstore should give you easy access to them.


One series of books that I found particularly useful is the Mind Hunter series by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. John Douglas is a renowned profiler for the F.B.I. Through each of his books he brings readers into the minds of the world’s most dangerous criminals. Covering everyone from John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy to the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh, Douglas gives readers a glimpse of the crime scenes and explains how criminal and psychological profiles were built on each. I found it a must for anyone developing a violent criminal character for his or her story.


I would also recommend the ‘Howdunit’ series to anyone writing crime or suspense fiction. This series, published by Writer’s Digest Books, is an excellent set of reference tools. Covering every technical aspect of crime fiction in an easy to use format, writers can research everything from crime scene investigations, police procedure and forensic medicine to criminal MO, poisons, and different types of crimes. A must-read for any writer who wants to get the finer details precise and accurate.

You should now have a wealth of resources to draw from when writing your story. All you need to do now is think up the perfect crime.