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Detective fiction

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How To Write Detective Fiction
by Maria Z.

Detective fiction is one of the most popular branches of crime writing. Among the many names that have contributed to this popularity are Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Martin Hewitt.

All these famous investigators are fictional characters carrying the obligation of solving mysterious crimes.

They are amateur detectives, private investigators and consulting detectives who collect clues, wear disguises and deduce solutions through thorough logical reasoning.

Writing detective fiction requires research, extensive plot revising and a lot of patience.

Taking down notes on technique used by prolific detective fiction writers will do you plenty of good.

Try reading Agatha Christie for amateur sleuth stories, Arthur Morrison for the earlier examples of modern style detective fiction and perhaps Ian Rankin for 21st century detective cases.

Planning Your Story

• Do your research.

o Read up on modern or archaic investigative procedures (this depends on the time setting you’ve chosen to write in)

o Study the popular usages of technique in plot development. You can try using these techniques as a template and treat it like a fill-in-the-blanks activity. Alternatively, you could work the reverse way and fit all the plot details you’ve already prepared into the template.
o Will the story be a whodunit?

• Picture your main protagonist character. Do you want someone like Miss Marple or a more ‘hardboiled’ type?

• Try to come up with a story ‘hook’. This will draw readers’ interest further into your story. It could be the way in which the murder was conducted, or a past experience of the main antagonist that relates to the case at hand (create a character-situational link).

• Who’s telling the story? Settle on a viewpoint based on how you want the characters to appear to the reader. If the story is told through the eyes of a sidekick, the detective will appear to be somewhat of a superior thinking-machine (as perfected in the Sherlock Holmes stories).

If the story is told by the detective himself, the reader will be able to get an inside-look of his thoughts and how he draws his conclusions.


• Make the place setting one that the main antagonist is highly familiar with.

• Choose a time setting that you are personally comfortable with so that you don’t get too steeped in unfamiliar historical or futuristic context.


• Plot first, character actions second.
o Try to ‘tailor-in’ character actions at different points of plot and not the other way round.

• The heart of the plot is the crime scene.
o It has to be unforgettable and fascinating.

Discoveries that contradict the predictable guesses of the reader can help you achieve this. (eg. ‘It was in fact the new pastor who had murdered one of the nuns and not the unscrupulous Atheist leader of the town mob’; think Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose)

• Your story should be made up of several intricate interweaving layers to make it less rigid and more interesting. However, remember to move seamlessly in and out of these different subplots. Side-stories that inject more emotion and drama can be good, but remember that it is a detective story; the main antagonist must keep his or her priorities in check.

• The crime should be solved in a method that is completely natural, ie. logical reasoning. As a result, ‘acts of God’ and unmotivated confessions are completely scraped off the list of solving methods. Accidents should also never be of assistance to the detective. The antagonist character will need to rely on his or her own skills of deduction.


• Your main antagonist should be one that readers can relate to. What characteristics and traits can you give this character to make them distinct, memorable and at the same time realistic? Do not have a bogeyman figure, this is more for horror.

• Does your detective need a sidekick? If yes, then make sure that the sidekick character differs greatly from the detective.

• The culprit should be someone who is unexpected, but has played a considerably large role in the story.

• The individual characters should not behave out-of-character at any point just to fit into a particular part of the story.

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