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

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