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.