Think Like a Crime Scene Detective


Photo: Used by permission from Getty Images

There is a big division in the aptly labeled type of writer called plotter or pantser when it comes to writing a novel.  I make no bones about it, I’m a plotter.  Yep, I admit it.  I outline my stories, not only for my own sanity, but to ensure that the storyline has the progression that I’m aiming for in order to tell the story the way I envisioned it.  It also helps with complicated plots and numerous suspects to keep them in the correct order.

When writing a mystery or thriller, I find it necessary to think like a crime scene detective.  Now that is not to say that the story should read like a police report.  That would be boring! Rather, ask yourself those burning questions of how the murderer committed the crime and what motivated him/her to take those specific, drastic measures.  It is a creative timeline of the events before, during, and after the crime.

In my outline, I make some helpful lists and timelines to keep the story crime in order.  It might be the criminologist in me, but it helps to flesh out storylines.

These are my favorite top three outline lists:

Crime Timeline

This helps to keep track of who, what, where and how a crime was committed.  It can be a general overview about the victim with details of death.  It can also help with a mystery whodunnit if you want to have several possible suspects and their whereabouts.  The time of day is helpful for the investigation as well as alibis.  I also include with my notes a brief sketch of the crime scene.  I’m definitely not an artist by any means, but I like to see visually the body location, entrances, location (indoors or outdoors) and anything that might add, or red herrings, to the scene.

Alibi and Motive List

This list might seem like a no brainer, but I’ve revised some of my supporting characters because of this list. I’ve even changed my mind about some of the twists in the storyline. This list helps to track of a character’s movements, motives (internal and external), and why they would or wouldn’t want to commit the crime.

Facts & Research

I like to think that these lists are my secret weapon in writing a crime thriller.  It can be as general or detailed as you choose.  You may think that my background and academics would be enough, but I strongly believe that every book needs some type of research.  I may understand the investigation process in a criminal investigation, but I strive to find the unusual or interesting nuggets of information.  I find these by research, which I corroborate with more than one source.  Sometimes I ask an investigator or a forensic scientist about a specific procedure, etc.  My fact sheet helps me to keep little facts straight.  It could be about a character, forensic process, or a dirty little secret about the protagonist.  I don’t like to worry about these small details as I write, but it makes for an easy reference when I need it.

Writing Tip:

I create my crime(s) by working it forwards and backwards.  You get a different perspective and it allows you not to leave anything out of the story.   You can decide how many clues you want to give the reader.

So are you ready to think like a crime scene detective?


More writing articles:

Boosting Creativity for Writing Crime Fiction

No Bones about Writing Bad Guys

Police Ride-Alongs Jump Started My Research for Writing Crime Fiction


Author Blog:
Crime Watch Blog:
Book & Crime Talk:
Books: Compulsion  Dead Game  Dark Mind  Dead Burn Silent Partner  Screenwriting

About jchasenovelist

Published thriller author, criminologist, and blogger.
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