I've been delving a lot into the the crime investigation genre, and at first I thought "Simple, just start of with Who, What, Where, When, Why and How and you've got yourself a story!" but I quickly realized it's much more complicated than that.

A crime solving story has Leads, it has Witnesses, it has Clues, it has Unexpected Discoveries... and I'm just lost in a sea of possibilities...

So I've tried to reduce the basic structure of a story to this:

  • There is a protagonist who tries to find out the "Who, What, Where, When, Why and How" of the case
  • There are Clues which may or may not go somewhere, and must be interpreted by the protagonist to have any meaning.
  • There are Witnessess who serve both to bring light to the case or muddle it further.
  • There are Misdirections normally due to simple human nature that can cause someone to seem guilty.
  • There are Leads which are advancements in the plot as the protagonist makes sense of everything else
  • And there are Culprits which are responsible for whatever the protagonist is investigating.

So my question is... am I leaving anything out? Is there some fundamental aspect to an investigation I'm forgetting? Bear in mind I consider Plot Twists to simply be a form of Misdirection.

6 Answers 6


Motive. Why did the person do it?

Helpers and Hinderers. People who assist in or impede the investigation. They can range from the detective's partner to evil minions to muckety-mucks on either side. This is apart from witnesses; these are people who can either bring information (clues, evidence) or hide it, who can provide witnesses or remove them, who can create misdirection or clear it up.


Scanning the boldfaced terms on this page, I have to laugh aloud because it makes me imagine a novel about a crime investigation without a crime! That would be a most intriguing book indeed – and I think I will write it, right after my book without an antagonist.

But to answer your question, the most important thing for me in a crime investigation story are the investigator protagonist and his or her investigation.

Crime investigation fiction is a story of a process and the character and the mind of the person who drives, or is driven, by it. Crime fiction, if done well, is psychological fiction. The crime investigation is a situation into which the protagonist is cast and which serves as some sort of psychological test that will uncover his character.

That is maybe not the traditional way these novels are written. Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple do not actually have much of a character. But it is the way crime investigation fiction is done in tv and movies today. They are no longer about riddles being solved, but about inspectors facing their own inner demons as personified by a crime, or being broken or healed by their lives, of which the police work is merely a part.

  • 1
    This... is definitely food for thought, I did not make much emphasis on the importance of character development, and it certainly should not be forgotten. I wonder however as to what exactly is expected to change in the character's persona... And the more I think of it, it may very well be that despite being a very important aspect for engaging the reader, it isn't an essential part to developing the story itself. Or maybe it is. I have to mull this over, there may be something to actually having the character's experiences and changes define the flow of the story. Sep 28, 2016 at 9:22
  • It will depend of the kind of story you tell. Jack Reacher is a contemporary, well, sometimes-investigator who doesn't much change.
    – user5645
    Sep 28, 2016 at 9:49
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    @what What is in fact a Crime (no pun intended) —it is lost somewhere in my comments, but it's in bold :-)
    – Lew
    Sep 28, 2016 at 16:01
  • Oh, yes, @Lew, I missed that, there is so much boldface in that part of the comments...
    – user5645
    Sep 28, 2016 at 17:48
  • As I commented to @JasonK above, character development is excellent for any story, but let's admit that Sherlock Holmes didn't really develop enormously over the course of his original short stories. Granted that ACDoyle was writing in a different era (and came to hate Holmes), but Holmes is not much different in "Shoscombe Old Place" or "Lion's Mane" than he is in A Study in Scarlet. It depends on what you're writing — a procedural TV show where the Reset Button™ gets hit every week has less change than a novel. Sep 28, 2016 at 18:36

Evidence comes in mind. It is somewhere in the realm of Clues/Leads, but more solid and obvious. Makes a perfect setup for unexpected plot twist, if misinterpreted in good faith from the very beginning. And the Antagonist, naturally, the one whodunit.

  • This is good. I think it's important to note that Antagonist is not the same as Culprit. I think the Antagonist is the person whodunit and the OP's Culprits would be better labelled as Suspects. Because there will always be people under suspicion who are later cleared. Sep 27, 2016 at 13:43
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    @LaurenIpsum Certainly. The Antaginist is usually Who. And the Suspects are a must! And if we go back to the Big Six (which are all valid questions), we can restructure them as Motive/Why, Method/How, The Crime Itself/What, and perhaps, The Scene/Where and When?
    – Lew
    Sep 27, 2016 at 13:50
  • The Scene/Where and When, definitely. Sep 27, 2016 at 14:49
  • I think I would consider Evidence as a type of Clue, however, a very simple thing that I had left out is the Suspects, as when I was talking about Culprits I meant whoever had actually done the thing. You've already given me much to think about, however... Sep 28, 2016 at 6:45

Another aspect is Conspiracy. A lot of crime novels have an onion layer structure to the bad guys, so the protagonist has to work their way through expanding levels of the crime, such that what at first appears to be a simple homicide is actually a state-wide ring of satanic cultists who run a shadow government.

There is also the Traitor which may be too strong a word. But he's the lovable ex-partner who helps the protagonist but in reality has been trying to guide the investigation astray because the traitor is actually working for (or is at least aware of) the bad guy and, at the very least, doesn't want the protagonist to get hurt. Heck, the TV show "24" had a mole in the CTU EVERY DAMNED SEASON, sometimes TWO! To the point where the most effective way to stop the bad guys would have been to immediately fire all the CTU employees at once (or at least send them all home for the day :)

A final aspect is a Past Connection. I've read many crime novels where the current crime echoes or mirrors some past event in the protagonists life. May just bring up some repressed memories that have to be dealt with or be a old foe back for more. I guess this is more of a character development tool than an essential element of crime fiction, but it is pretty common.

  • I think these are good possible aspects which can be added, but they aren't required. There are plenty of Sherlock Holmes stories which are crime investigations without any of these aspects. Sep 28, 2016 at 18:30

In my mind a crime stroy starts with the case. The first thing you have to know is

Jane killed John with a knife, because John has slept with her best friend

You need to know WHO is the culprit? WHO was murdered/assaulted/attacked/robbed/... and for WHAT reason? In the series "Castle" the flow of a crime is perfectly described in the first episode? "Every crime has a story". If you have the story about the crime? You can try to think like the culprit? Why has he done it? For what purpose? Was he alone? Is he intelligent enough to remove traces to him? Think about your detective and the culprit as Holmes and Moriarty. Two highly intelligent characters, that always try to be one step ahead of each other.

Crime is a genre, that needs to follow the flow backwards in the creating. Fantasy can start with just characters, their traits and a slightly build world. The story follows in the most cases alone. But crime is something more complex. There can be traps, baits, conspiracies and so on. You need to know the end, before you start to write. Your characters have to react to a strict plan. But the important part in crime is: You need to know the end and the reasons, why the incident happened. Then you can follow it all backwards and create a story around it.


There is a detective. This person may or may not be the protagonist. The competence and alignment of the detective will set the tone for a good portion of the story. The detective can be anywhere from stiff and professional to quirky and bumbling.

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