In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about the conventions of the crime genre. So, these are the character roles, settings, and events that need to be present in a crime story in order for it to work and to satisfy fans of the genre.
I’m also going to show you how these genre conventions show up in the movie Knives Out. So, if you’re writing a crime story, this episode is for you–and if not, don’t worry because I’ve covered a lot of the other genres already, and I’m going to cover each of the other genres very soon.
Crime stories are all about the quest to either solve or commit a crime. So, these stories start with a crime, build with an investigation (or a completion of the crime), and end with identifying and bringing the criminal to justice (or not).
In something like a mystery, the protagonist must wade through a closed circle of suspects–each with a credible motive and a reasonable opportunity to commit the crime–to make sense of the clues and solve the puzzle. In something like a caper or heist story, the protagonist will want to avoid capture (and being brought to justice) by outsmarting the cop or detective assigned to stop them.
Beyond that, crime stories can have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have various levels of romance, action, adventure, or magic. They can include different subplots, too, as long as the protagonist’s mission to solve (or commit) a crime remains the story’s focus.
Readers choose crime fiction because they want to feel a sense of anticipation and intrigue over whether or not the criminal will be brought to justice. They want to follow the trail of clues, make meaning of those clues, and figure out the puzzle right alongside the protagonist. By the end of these stories, most readers want to feel a sense of comfort, relief, and security when justice is served and order has been restored. So, they want to see the wrongs righted, and they want to see justice prevail.
And like all genre fiction, you have to deliver the emotional experience readers are looking for in order for your story to work. So, how do you go about doing that? Well, the first thing you can do is figure out what obligatory scenes and conventions are required in a crime story for it to work.
Conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of roles, settings, events, and values that are specific to a genre. They're the things that readers intuitively expect to be present in a work of genre fiction whether they consciously realize it or not.
Obligatory scenes are the key events, decisions, and discoveries that move the protagonist along on his or her journey. They’re what help us write a story that works and when coupled with your genre’s conventions, help us evoke emotional reactions in our readers.
So, now let’s take a look at what these crime genre conventions are and how they show up in the movie Knives Out. And if you’re wondering why I’m going to walk you through these key scenes in a movie it’s simply because movies require less of a time investment and I’m hoping you’ve either seen the Knives Out movie or that you’ll at least watch it after listening to this episode to help cement these genre conventions in your mind. So, of course, you can (and should) study these conventions in your favorite crime novels, but for today, we’re going to look at them in a movie.
As I go through these conventions, I want you to consider WHY each of these roles or settings or events would need to be in a crime story–or what purpose they serve in the overall narrative. My hope is that you’ll notice that each of these conventions has a really specific reason why it needs to be there–and because of that, you can use these conventions (plus the obligatory scenes of the crime genre) to help you craft an outline or a first draft of a story that works.
So, let’s dive in.
The inciting crime is the event that fuels the whole plot in a crime novel. It creates the central conflict that launches the investigation, and sends the protagonist on a quest to find out whodunnit. Victims could include dead bodies, missing persons, or hostages. Really, anyone who’s on the receiving end of the antagonist’s crime.
In Knives Out, someone murders the wealthy crime novelist, Harlan Thrombey.
At the heart of every mystery is a protagonist who is determined to solve the crime. They are seeking justice. After the protagonist learns about the inciting crime, they will follow a trail of clues to uncover whodunnit. They are often put in situations that test their intellect and ingenuity and force them to tread a path between haste and care. Depending on the story, this could be a brilliant detective, an amateur investigator, or an average citizen whose intent on solving the case and bringing the antagonist to justice. Whatever the case, the best crime protagonists usually have some kind of backstory that connects them to the crime or the killer and a motive that explains why solving this crime is important to them.
In Knives Out, Benoit Blanc is a brilliant, well-known detective. He’s personally connected to Harlan’s murder because a) someone mailed him the newspaper clipping and money, essentially hiring him to figure it out, and b) Benoit’s father knew and respected Harlan. On the flip side of this is Harlan’s nurse, Marta, who thinks she’s responsible for Harlan’s death, and therefore, is determined not to be found out.
The antagonist in a crime story is usually very intelligent, crafty, and careful. Because of this, it often feels like the antagonist is one step ahead of the protagonist the entire time. But, by the end, they are eventually brought to justice.
In Knives Out, Ransom is very smart and crafty. Even Harlan says that ”Ransom is confident and plays life like it’s a game without consequence.” He almost gets away with framing Marta for Harlan’s death, but luckily, Benoit and Marta are smarter.
Crime stories need a closed circle of suspects, each with a credible motive and a reasonable opportunity for committing the crime. The protagonist will need to rule them out one by one to identify the antagonist and bring them to justice.
In Knives Out, pretty much everyone in the house is a suspect, and Benoit has to rule them out one by one. On the day of his death, Harlan threatened to expose his son-in-law Richard for cheating on his daughter Linda, cut off his daughter-in-law Joni's allowance for stealing from him, fired his son Walt from his publishing company, and had an altercation with his grandson Ransom. Beyond that, Marta had access to his medicine. They all seem to have motive and opportunity, and Benoit must rule them out one by one to solve the crime.
A MacGuffin is the specific thing that the antagonist is trying to get, accomplish, or achieve throughout the story. And there needs to be a plausible reason for why they want this specific thing, too. Sometimes there’s a secret that acts as a MacGuffin, and once the protagonist figures it out, they can identify the criminal. The crime at the beginning of the story usually contains a clue as to what the antagonist’s MacGuffin and motives are.
In Knives Out, the family wants Harlan Thrombey’s money. They’re all hoping to be left access to his estate and everything that comes with it.
The crime protagonist can have one or multiple sidekicks. They often act as a sounding board for the protagonist and help bring the criminal to justice. They can also provide interpersonal conflict in the moments when the protagonist is not actively engaged in solving the crime. Sidekicks can also act as heralds who remind the protagonist what’s at stake and how dangerous everything is. They can be part of a friendship or romantic subplot, too.
In Knives Out, Benoit has two detectives working alongside him. He also has Marta’s help and can bounce ideas off of her and get information from her, too.
Throughout the story, the protagonist will need to follow a trail of clues to figure out whodunnit and bring the criminal to justice. Some of these clues are “true,” meaning they lead the protagonist closer to the truth, but most are dead ends or red herrings that misdirect the protagonist and the reader.
In Knives Out, there are plenty of clues and red herrings; the family’s individual accounts of what happened, the security tape, the footprints in the mud, the pieces of the wooden trellis that lead up to the trick window, the medical building that burns down, the toxicology report, etc.
Crime stories need a ticking clock or deadline by which the protagonist must solve the crime and bring the criminal to justice. Without some kind of ticking clock, the story could go on forever (in theory). Whatever the deadline is, it must be crystal clear to the protagonist and readers because this raises the tension. Ticking clocks usually kick into gear at the Midpoint.
In Knives Out, the will starts a ticking clock because once the family learns that Harlan left everything to Marta, they want her to give it all up. There’s also the note from “the blackmailer” that serves as a ticking clock for Marta.
This is when a character talks about how brilliant, strong, or powerful the antagonist is. Sometimes this is shown via a conversation between two characters, through letters or a newspaper article, on TV during a news broadcast, or something like that. This could also happen in the form of a revelation where the protagonist pieces together bits of information that shows just how smart, strong, or powerful this antagonist is.
In Knives Out, Harlan delivers this speech in praise of Ransom. Harlan says, “there is so much of me in that kid. He’s confident and stupid. Protected. Playing life like a game without consequence.” At another point, he also expresses how good Ransom is at the game Go (a game that requires intelligent players).
A shapeshifter is someone who says one thing and does another. And usually, their behavior or influence directly impacts the protagonist’s ability to find out whodunnit.
In Knives Out, Marta is a great example of a shapeshifter who directly impacts Benoit’s ability to solve the case with her actions. We learn that Marta was in cahoots with Harlan and is responsible for his murder (or so she thinks). The family as a whole could be considered shapeshifters, too. They turn on Marta after Harlan’s will is read. Ransom is another shapeshifter who goes from a delinquent to helping Marta to the prime suspect.
So, there you have it–those are the conventions of the crime genre. And if you’re thinking–okay, yes, those are all really obvious, Savannah… Well, you’d be surprised how many drafts I see that are missing these conventions or that don’t include these conventions in a meaningful way.
You might also be thinking–okay, these all sound good, but I don’t want to write a cliche or predictable story full of tropes. And if you’re feeling that way, I’d encourage you to go to listen to episode #16 that’s all about the difference between genre conventions and tropes. In a nutshell, including these genre conventions in your story isn’t going to make your story cliche or predictable in a bad way—they’re just going to help you write a piece of genre fiction that works. The way you deliver these conventions can fall into cliche territory if you don’t put your unique spin on them.
And as a quick reminder, these are the elements that readers come to crime stories for–they love them. Personally, I love trying to figure out which clues are true clues and which ones are red herrings. As a reader, that is so much fun for me. But if I were to read a crime story that didn’t have red herrings? I would be so bummed–that would take all the fun out of reading a story like this and I’d be disappointed.
So, to make a long story short, you don't leave these key scenes out.
Find a way to give the reader what they want, in new and unexpected ways, and you'll gain fans for life. Many great crime stories stick with us because they include these key scenes in an innovative way. You can do this, too!
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Are you writing a crime novel? How do you come up with innovative ways to deliver the obligatory scenes of the genre?
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