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7 Steps to Compose a Good Detective Story

Detective stories are amongst the most popular genre of tale in the modern age, and it’s not hard to see why. Set in a recognisably Ironic era, in which systems of belief in an ordered world have broken down, and in which the trusted paradigm is that the universe is empty of meaning and slowly dying, the modern detective story gives readers a shadow of a suggestion that it is still possible for order to triumph: a detective, usually very much an older and wiser figure, is somehow able to piece together from minutiae - the significance of which has totally eluded us - the trail to find the villain. That villain is the only real villain, the source of all evil and disorder. Once found, tranquility returns.

As part of a lesson, I once put together a series of relatively simple steps which, if written out by a group of students, results in a reasonable detective story. This is probably the way Agatha Christie worked in devising her tales, most of which sold millions of copies.

1. Work out a crime.

Don’t make this in any way mysterious. You, the author, must know every detail about this crime. You must devise who did it, how they did it when they did it, where they did it - everything. This isn’t the time to add in unknowns, that comes later. Write it all out in elaborate detail. It can be a murder, a robbery, whatever you wish, but leave nothing out of this initial account.

Here’s an additional thing to work into the framework at this stage: devise a clash between a protagonist and an antagonist which takes place in the past. In other words, a hero and a villain have had some sort of titanic contest years before, and the crime, whatever it may be, is a kind of revenge or follow-up action to that original conflict. You are laying the groundwork here for the motivation of whoever commits the crime. A simple bank robbery, for example, might work as a ‘crime’, but it will not attract readers unless there is an emotional undertow: perhaps the bank is being robbed as an act of vengeance or in order to obtain something which the antagonist needs to attack the protagonist.

Time spent on this first step is worth it: a well-worked-out foundation here is where your story gains its strength from later.

2. Now begin to cover it up.

What does your culprit do to hide his over her tracks? How is the crime itself concealed? What attempts are made to deflect attention? Be convincing, but make sure you leave enough for step 3.

3. Leave three definite and accurate clues.

Work out for yourself which exact pieces of evidence are going to be left scattered around in various ways to lead your detective to the real criminal. These clues have to be real and accurate, not tricks.

4. Develop at least three ‘red herrings’ or false clues.

Scatter these around in the same way that you do the real clues. These are the things which distract and mislead the readers’ attention, the tricks and misdirections which engage readers but to a false end.

5. Now invent your detective.

You can be entirely original about this, but you will notice some patterns in the most famous detectives of fiction: the most well-known have some ‘defect’ in their make-up, something which sets them apart. Sherlock Holmes has his genius, but the flaw in his character is his predilection for cocaine; Poirot is meticulously vain about his appearance; Miss Marple is ancient, and so on.

They are not just your average ‘man or woman in the street’. This is on purpose. They have to command reader attention in some way; they have to be some kind of authority figure either physically or mentally.

6. Invent some other potential culprits.

Of course you know ‘whodunnit’, but the reader doesn’t. You need to have enough false villains on the scene to hook a reader’s interest. You actual villain can be around too, and should be, but he or she shouldn’t stand out. These extra culprits have to have dark secrets in their past, each one, secrets that entice the reader into thinking that they could be ‘the one’.

7. Create a scenario.

Your actual story can open some time after the crime has been committed or just before. Your detective usually fortuitously arrives on the scene or is present by accident or coincidence. A group of people has gathered - on a train, on a boat, in a village, at a dinner, and so forth. The crime is revealed and the detective sets about piecing things together. The reader, tracking along and observing the same things as the detective, tries to ‘second-guess’ who the villain is. Everything is obscured and muddled by the red herrings. Sometimes, things are made even more confusing by additional crimes, which take place in an effort by the real culprit to hide the initial crime. In the end, only the detective has been able to see through the fog and spot the real bad guy.

Work this back and forth until you have mastered the sequence. It lays the groundwork for many an entertaining tale.


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