The Writer’s Bag of Tricks


We’ve been discussing genre fiction for the last several weeks with a focus on crime fiction. This week we focus on a subgenre of crime fiction called the Whodunnit.

A Whodunnit is closely related to the private eye novel, which we discussed last week. Also called a murder mystery, the Whodunnit is primarily focused on the puzzle of the murder rather than the characters involved with the murder. Whodunnits tend to be plot driven stories rather than character driven stories.


The basic Whodunnit plot usually goes like this:

  • There is a murder
  • There is a short list of suspects, each with motive and opportunity to commit the murder.
  • The detective (either amateur or professional) comes in to investigate the murder and with the help of clues and a strong power of deduction, discovers the real perpetrator.

General Story Structure

The soon-to-be-dead character is introduced while in conflict with other characters. At some point, written so that the reader can’t see who committed the murder, but can see the murder and some of the clues, someone knocks the old bugger on the head and kills him (or her, or shoots them, stabs them, poisons them…you get the picture). The newly-dead character is discovered and sets the investigation in motion.

The murder investigation unfolds according to the logic of the detective who generally follows crime procedures. The characters who appeared earlier in conflict with the corpse (previously, the soon-to-be-dead character), are seen in a new light, with motive and opportunity to commit the murder, and these characters are reintroduced as suspects. The detective identifies the story problems, but doesn’t solve any problems. Suspects hold back information, which the reader knows but the detective doesn’t.

There is a second murder (usually the same perpetrator committs both crimes). The second corpse is usually the prime suspect identified by the detective earlier in the story. This second corpse represents a setback for the detective because they failed to solve the earlier crime and now have two bodies to deal with. The detective then begins to use insight into the crimes rather than procedures. More clues are discovered. The detective begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, which sets events in motion and raises the stakes for all the characters. The detective forms and discards multiple theories of who committed the murders, and why. Then the detective forms the correct theory and identities the killer, but the detective can’t prove it yet.

The detective and the killer clash in some sort of final battle (wits or physical), and the detective has a close brush with death. At the last second, the detective succeeds in thwarting the killer, reveals the murderer, and proves both motive and opportunity.

The Whodunnit ends with the characters moving on with their lives.

Next week: More on crime fiction.


The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

We’ve been discussing genre fiction for the last several weeks. This week we focus on crime fiction, and one of crime fiction’s subgenre called the private eye novel.

Private Eye Novels


The protagonist or main character of the private eye is usually someone with a strong moral center who wants justice for justice’s sake. Money is an aside. They are usually loners and work alone, though there is often a junior partner or sidekick that assists them and does the busy work. PIs are outsiders with attitude.


The settings for PI mysteries are generally city-centric with all the alley-way options and infinite crime possibilities that cities provide.


The basic PI plot usually goes like this:

  • The PI is hired
  • The PI antagonizes the crime theories floating around and is often thwarted by characters not willing to share information, or by characters wanting to protect themselves.
  • The PI puts all the pieces together (usually after spotting some guilty behavior that other characters miss) and solves the crime.

General Story Structure

The genesis of the crime is the initial event which causes the perpetrator to plan the crime, or cause the perpetrator to fly into a jealous rage, for example. Starting with the genesis of the crime allows the reader to have some sympathy for the criminal, without necessarily knowing who the criminal is. Be careful if this is your opening scene because it can sometimes feel completely separate from the rest of the novel. If this happens, cut the opening scene, and add the important information later in the story to show the criminal’s motivation.

The crime is the center of every mystery novel. Sometimes the crime occurs off stage, especially if it violent, but there is always a crime. Most mysteries open during  the crime scene investigation. Be sure to include your hook early on.

Create escalating conflict by having the PI make several attempts to solve the crime and have those attempts fail. The failed attempts usually make the situation worse for everyone. Generally, there are three attempts to solve the crime and it is not until the third attempt that there is success. Most importantly, keep the character busy (as opposed to doing busy work. Most importantly you want readers to turn the page and not be bogged down with excessive boring details. Busy work is what the sidekick does off stage, and then brings back to the main character).

Twists,  turns, and red herrings are plot devices that are used to keep the reader guessing. Turn the expected resolution to your scenes upside down. Be careful to not use the same twist repeatedly. The purpose is to surprise the reader.

Consider writing subplots that echo or contradict the main plot, but be sure the subplot does not overshadow the main plot.

Plant clues in strategic places and be sure to resolve all of them them at the climax of the story. If the murder weapon was poison, for example, then the poison should be a subtle clue placed earlier in the story. The clue is something seen in passing at the time and is not the focus of the investigation.

The climax brings all the clues together, and shows the reader who the perpetrator of the crime is. The conclusion should be a surprise to the reader, but obvious enough that the reader can put the pieces together.

The resolution answers all the story questions and returns the world back to normal.

There are an infinite number of ways to write the PI novel, but above is the basic information necessary to all of them. Because of the complexity of the story structure, and the need for red herrings, and clues, I do recommend that you outline your story in detail to make sure you have all the necessary twists and turns, and to makes sure you resolve all the story questions.

Next week: more crime fiction

Big 5 vs Small Press

I have an author friend who signed with one of the big 5 publishers* a few years ago. She has done well by many standards. She has received great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. She has received various accolades denoting her writing talent. She has a huge social media following. She works hard and works consistently to market herself and her work, and as a result has sold more than ten thousand copies of her last published book. This surge in sales also triggered purchases of her earlier releases.

Recently she sent her latest book in the series to her Big 5 publisher. She waited to hear the release date. She kept writing to complete the next book in that series. Then she got word. Her Big 5 publisher dropped her mid-series. Why? Because she didn’t sell enough. Her Big 5 publisher wanted twenty-five thousand copies sold. Keep in mind that less than 2% of books published sell more than five thousand copies. This means that 98% sell less than five thousand copies. Moderately successful books sell around two to three thousand copies. My author friend did considerably better than average which put her in that 2% range.

My author friend made a profit for her Big 5 publisher, but not enough profit. The focus of New York publishing is best-sellers and celebrities. They want virtually guaranteed profits. They don’t want to bother with less successful authors and so are dropping authors in droves. It is devastating for the authors. It is troubling for readers. The Big 5 are corporations now. They no longer care about the quality of books and they almost never sign new authors.

I understand that publishing is a business and business decisions have to be made. But I suspect all the focus on celebrity and best-sellers by the Big 5 leaves book buyers wanting for new authors, new series, and new stand-alone books to enthrall them.

Readers love discovering new authors, and new books, hence the success of Goodreads, Library Thing, Shelfari, weRead, The Reading Room, Libb, Booklamp, Reader2, Anobii, Riffle Books, BookLikes, Thirdscribe…and the list goes on.

I think the publishing hub of New York has forgotten about the majority of readers. This is why I formed Literary Wanderlust. We care about quality and diversity and craft and all those magical things that go into creating the best possible books.

Quality matters to us in Denver.

*The Big 5 publishers consist of Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Shuster. All of them are located in New York.

**Adapted from DenverLit. First published August 2015.

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Genre and Trope and Stuff

Crime Fiction

This week I’d thought we’d focus on crime fiction. In case you are not familiar, crime fiction is that genre category that fictionalises crime on some level. If you are thinking about writing crime fiction here are some stats to help with your decision. We will discuss techniques on a later post.

Miscellaneous goodies:

  • In 2014 crime fiction sales were just under $728 million
  • Crime fiction equated to about 24% of adult fiction book sales
  • As of July 2015, crime fiction was the most-read genre at a whopping 47%
  • Crime fiction readers are mostly women
  • 53% of female readers had read a crime fiction book within the last year.
  • 39% of male readers had read a crime fiction book within the last year.
  • 28% of crime fiction readers are 65+
  • 19% of crime fiction readers are 55-64 years of age
  • 16% of crime fiction readers are 45-54 years of age
  • 18% of crime fiction readers are 30-44 years of age
  • 14% of crime fiction readers are 18-29 years of age
  • 4% of crime fiction readers are under 18

What makes it crime fiction?

The plot of the story is propelled by a significant crime which motivates the characters. The instigating crimes usually include murder, or stolen objects, or kidnapping. Usually the hero who solves the crime is the protagonist, and usually the hero is a detective or lay detective of some sort. The hero does not have to be likeable (as in romance) but does have to be interesting and intelligent.

The suspects of the crime story create the suspense, and there are usually multiple suspects to create interest. The majority of the suspects will be red herrings (false leads) which are used to misdirect the reader. The criminal should be be equally matched with the protagonist, should be intelligent, and might be sneaky. The criminal must be introduced early in the story.

Crime fiction is generally realistic, with a believable plot.

Crime fiction subgenres include:

  • Mystery
  • Spy/Espionage
  • Thriller/Suspense

More on crime fiction next week.