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Write a Gripping, Intense Crime Story That Sells

Updated on October 14, 2021
Kenna McHugh profile image

Kenna researches and interviews successful writers and shares what she learns, so she can help others write better.

Joe Friday—“Just the facts, Ma'am”


Don't use "Let's take him downtown for questioning." Roth writes that real cops never say that.

Attempted Murder

The Crime Writer's Reference Guide, 1001 Tips for Writing the Perfect Murder by the late Martin Roth, is not a book that you read for pleasure on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

When you are writing a story that needs an accurate portrait of anything that deals with a crime, you reach for it and use it for blood. You'll need to read it, though, so you know why you write with accuracy and detailing a fictional crime story.

Of course, you don't want to be as dry as a crime report, but you want to write real-life drama.

When you are writing a story that needs an accurate portrait of anything that deals with a crime, you reach for this book and use it for blood.

How to be a Serial Killer

Take a story about a serial killer. You need to create a profile, and you look in the book's glossary under serial murder. Turn to the pages designated, and discover there is not just one type of serial killer but four. You read the passage in the book, "studies reveal that most serial killers are white males between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five and are usually products of working-or-lower-middle-class families."

Your profile takes shape, and you read on, "Many serial killers are charming, selfish, impulsive, and ambitious. Many come from broken homes or homes where they were abused. Few serial killers express any feelings of guilt or remorse for their crimes." A brilliant start for a classic character study. Now that I think about it, most of the crime stories I have read or seen in movies fit this profile.

Turn to the pages designated, and discover there is not just one type of serial killer but four.

Crime Dialogue

I enjoyed the chapter on language. It is an essential tool for any crime writer with such slang as a "throwaway" - which means guns or clothes were worn and discarded by the mugger to avoid pursuit.

How about "pigeon" - which means victim. This chapter supplies enough dialogue ideas to keep you writing dialogue for twelve CSI spin-offs. Wait, CSI spin-offs are close to twelve and counting.

All kidding aside, you need this book dog-eared and well used if you write about crime.

List of Character Traits

Reading the book filled my head with straightforward ideas for stories and ample characters. What also fascinated me was the character description of cops, what their lives are like and not like, creating a whole scope of ideas. My fingers were itching to click the keys on my keyboard and start writing.

Roth's book gives you all the information you need to create a crime. You can start with the criminal act, the crime scene investigation, prosecution of the criminal, and end with life in prison. He offers plenty of examples of television shows that truthfully illustrate crime stories.

As an exercise, you can watch a few crime shows and see if the production company followed Roth's standards.

Mile 22

Listen to the Police Dialogue

Mark Wahlberg stars in Mile 22, a drama about a secret special forces unit within the government. I recommend you listen to the dialogue in this scene. You will hear crime jargon like "motive" and "driven."

Director Peter Berg shoots this scene with a handheld camera that follows how agents, police, special forces meet and collaborate on solving the crime.

Though it is a dramatization, you get the idea of what it is like within a collaborative meeting between police forces.

Favorite Crime TV Series

Which crime television series did you like the most?

See results

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade

Humphrey Bogart
Humphrey Bogart

"He said: "I'm going to send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means you'll be out again in twenty years. You're an angel. I'll wait for you." He cleared his throat. "If they hang you, I'll always remember you."

— Dashiell Hammett, "The Maltese Falcon"

Crime References

Finally, if the chapter you are reading isn't enough to fill your creative imagination, which is hard to believe, there is a section called "Where do you go from here." This chapter holds listings of other books written on that subject. You can head to the library and create a new pastime of reading how to write crime stories instruction books.

The Crime Writer's Reference Guide, 1001 Tips for Writing the Perfect Murder, is the reference book for any writer about to write a story centered on crime. Even if you have it written, you can use this book to cross-check your accuracy. "Just the facts, Ma'am."

© 2014 Kenna McHugh


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