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My Top 3 Scene Writing Tips: Crime Edition (AKA: Things My Clients are Sick of Hearing)

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

Scene writing is a key skill for any novel, right alongside developing a strong plot and creating compelling characters. But I wanted to write a post specific to mysteries because crime and mysteries tend to behave a little differently. Mystery plots are puzzle-centric, which means there are a few extra things you need to keep at the forefront of your mind when writing scenes. These are things I tell my clients over and over again when reviewing their writing and discussing their plots, so here they are for you, except just the one time :)

Tip #1: Make sure something case-related happens in every. single. scene.

Don't let a scene go by without having some kind of development or insight about your protagonist's investigation. If your story is primarily a crime or mystery, then this is essential! This is what you promised the reader, so don't sell them short on this! Find a way to bring everything back to the case at hand -- whether it's a case-related event that interrupts, your protagonist/characters reflecting on the facts of the case, or even the protagonist gleaning an insight about the case because of the events that happen in the scene. The caveat here is that if your protagonist is reflecting on the facts of the case or discussing with another character, those reflections must raise new questions or insights, otherwise you're simply repeating stuff that the reader has already witnessed.

As an aside, if your story has a mystery subplot, then you want to continuously tie the mystery back into the main plot. In this case, it may not be that the mystery develops in every single scene, but you do want the main plot to generate questions, leads, and insights about the mystery subplot. If you have scenes that focus on the investigation of the mystery, then you want to ensure that those scenes have a direct impact on the primary plot of your story -- whether materially, or through questions, leads, or insights pertaining to the main plot.

Tip #2: Make sure the reader is aware of the status of the investigation at all times

When your reader shows up to a mystery, they are investigating the crime right along with your protagonist! Treat your reader like an assistant to your protagonist, with one key difference: you don't want them to figure out the right answer! Mysteries are the most fun when we have all the facts but were properly misled to generate the wrong conclusion. However, it only works if you play fair!

I generally consider two things to constitute the status of the investigation:

  1. What lead we're pursuing in this scene. This gives the scene a sense of direction as well as creates the anticipation for what kinds of insights this part of the investigation will generate.

  2. What leads are on pause. There are a number of ways this might look, but usually your protagonist should be juggling at least a couple of leads at a time, with the exception of the very beginning of the story when your protagonist may only have a single lead to go on (for example, visiting the scene of the crime or talking to the investigating officer). Your protagonist may be waiting on information from someone or an appointment with someone, they may not know how to investigate the lead, or they may lack the resources or opportunity to investigate at the moment. You don't need to hammer this home scene after scene, but often, you'll see a protagonist mentally reiterating what they're waiting on or what part of the investigation is stuck. This helps create a sense of motion -- it keeps the questions and anticipation fresh while also creating the sense that the investigation is actually progressing.

Side note: There is usually a time in the investigation when the protagonist hits a dead end (probably around the third act in a 4-act structure, when everything is looking pretty bleak). In that case, what you want to see is the protagonist trying to combine the information in new ways, potentially rehashing/revisiting old leads, and reevaluating the information they've obtained so far. Even though the investigation is stuck, the scene shouldn't feel pointless! Just because your protagonist is stuck doesn't mean your reader should be.

Tip #3: Make sure your protagonist is approaching every scene with a strategy.

This is about making your protagonist distinct. There may be an inherent logic to the actions of your protagonist, but there should also be a style that is unique to your protagonist, and that should impact how they show up to the investigation (otherwise they're just an "Everyman" stand-in doing stuff). The type of investigator that your protagonist is should also impact how they go about solving the crime and what kinds of concerns dictate how they investigate. For example, a police officer may be concerned with fulfilling procedures properly to ensure a conviction, while a journalist may be more concerned about maintaining relationships with sources. Then, you can layer their personality into the approach. Is your protagonist a charmer first but a hardass when that doesn't work? Is your protagonist compassionate toward victims or more worried about their byline? Or maybe your protagonist is a spitfire who doesn't care about the rules and just wants to catch bad guys. Whatever your protagonist's approach, there should be consequences to their actions! Their approach should directly impact how the case unfolds -- a lapse of judgment should set the protagonist back in the investigation or cost them resources, a connection made should give them access to more information or might result in betrayal. The point is that your protagonist should have an approach to the investigation, and you make that approach actually matter by creating consequences to those actions.

Before writing your next scene, try planning it with these three keys in mind and see what happens!

Leave a comment and let me know: what struggles do you have when writing your scenes?

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