The 6 Scenes Every Crime Story Needs
In today's post, I'm covering the obligatory scenes of the crime genre. If you want to write an intriguing crime story that works—and that satisfies fans of the genre—then you need to nail these six key scenes in your novel.
I’m also going to show you how these key scenes manifest in the movie Knives Out. Why movies? Why not books? The simple answer is that movies require less time investment than books. I’m hoping that if you haven’t seen these movies, you’ll watch them after reading this post to help cement these key scenes in your mind.
But, before we get into what those six key scenes are, let’s go over some basics.
What Makes a Crime Story?
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.
Why do People Read Crime Stories?
Readers choose 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.
What Are Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
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, what are the obligatory scenes of the crime genre? Let’s dive into the key scenes every crime story needs, and see how each of these scenes shows up in the movie Knives Out.
The Key Scenes of the Crime Genre are:
#1. The protagonist discovers a crime that’s indicative of a master antagonist.
Sometimes the protagonist will discover the crime on their own, and other times they will hear about it from someone else. This scene is almost always the global inciting incident of the story because it kicks everything into gear. From here on out, the protagonist will want to figure out whodunnit so that they can bring the antagonist to justice. So, where a thriller is about stopping a future crime from happening, crime stories are all about figuring out who committed a crime and bringing that person to justice.
- In Knives Out, Harlan’s housekeeper, Fran, finds him dead with his throat slit. Benoit Blanc learns about Harlan’s death because someone mails him a newspaper clipping and some money, essentially hiring him to solve the case. From Marta’s perspective, she arrives at the Thrombey house only to realize the whole family is there, along with Lieutenant Elliot, Trooper Wagner, and a mysterious detective named Benoit Blanc. They’re all here to investigate Harlan’s death.
#2. The stakes become personal to the protagonist, and they commit to figuring out what’s going on so that they can bring the antagonist to justice.
After the protagonist discovers the crime, it’s not always easy for them to engage in the conflict. And it’s not always their top priority either. Sometimes it is, but not always. In this scene, something happens that makes the stakes personal to the protagonist. So, now they care, and they’re personally invested in bringing the antagonist to justice. This scene usually occurs at the end of act one, cementing the protagonist’s way forward into act two.
- In Knives Out, Benoit is personally interested in this case for two reasons. First, someone anonymously hired him to solve it. Second, his father was friends with Harlan, and Benoit believes him to be a good man worthy of seeing justice delivered. Marta is personally invested in this case because she thinks she’s responsible for killing Harlan! She wants to know what Benoit knows to avoid being caught.
#3. The protagonist learns more about what the antagonist wants and why. This raises the stakes, and the clock starts ticking.
When the protagonist discovers what the antagonist’s MacGuffin is and why they want it, things are going to feel both exciting and more challenging at the same time. Usually, it feels more difficult to solve the crime because of this new understanding or realization, but the protagonist is still committed to seeing it through. Sometimes, this is where they move from a reactive state to a more proactive one, too. So, this scene could include their first real lead regarding whodunnit. Or it could be that they need to dig deep for insights or neglected clues to regain their advantage. This scene usually occurs at the midpoint of a story, in the middle of act two.
- In Knives Out, the lawyer reads Harlan’s will, and the family learns that he left everything to Marta. Marta confesses to Ransom that she killed Harlan. Ransom offers to help Marta in exchange for his share of the inheritance. Benoit Blanc suspects foul play and has eliminated no suspects.
#4. The protagonist reaches an all is lost moment where they realize they’ve come to the wrong conclusion, or they’ve been pursuing the wrong person.
Eventually, the protagonist will reach an all-time low where it seems like they’re never going to be able to bring the criminal to justice. Sometimes it seems like they’ve reached the wrong conclusion or an unsatisfying dead end, but then they learn something that gives them a glimmer of hope. In some stories, this is where the case within a case is solved. Whatever they learn or do will lead to their ultimate confrontation with the antagonist. This scene usually happens at the end of act two, pushing the protagonist into act three and into the inevitable climax of the story.
- In Knives Out, after a car chase, Marta and Ransom are caught. Ransom is taken into custody by the cops, and Blanc rides with Marta. She stops at the blackmailer’s location to find Fran in a chair dying from a morphine overdose and calls 911.
#5. The protagonist exposes the true criminal in the big climactic moment and unravels all the antagonist’s motives and plans.
In the main climax of the story, the protagonist confronts the antagonist directly, gambling on the correctness of their deductions. If they’re right, they will finally accomplish the goal that was raised at the beginning of the story. The ending should also provide an alibi for any other suspects to strengthen the real killer’s identity and eliminate doubt, tying up loose ends.
- In Knives Out, Blanc reveals his deductions to Marta, Ransom, and the police. Marta tricks Ransom into confessing by saying that Fran survived and that she will implicate him in Harlan’s murder. After Ransom confesses and vows revenge, Marta vomits on him, revealing her lie. Ransom attacks Marta but doesn’t hurt her because he unknowingly uses a retractable stage knife.
#6. The protagonist brings the antagonist to justice (or not).
The protagonist either correctly identifies the criminal (or fails to do so). And afterward, the protagonist gets confirmation that the antagonist has been brought to justice. This doesn’t mean they have to literally see the antagonist being brought to justice, but they need to learn at least somehow that justice has been served and that order has been restored.
- In Knives Out, the police have recorded Ransom's confession, and he is taken into custody as Marta watches from what is now her mansion.
You're probably thinking, "This is so obvious! Tell me something I don't know!" But seriously, you'd be surprised how many first drafts I see that are missing these key moments.
These are the scenes that readers come to crime stories for. Everyone wants to see the moment where the protagonist confronts the antagonist rattles off how they figured out all of their plans and movies for committing the crime in the first place—it's so good!
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?