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It was an out of body experience. All the pain and guilt and shame moved his hands towards the hatchet and all that he was not surfaced in one mighty thwack. What happens next? Who’s the victim? Maybe, it’s what’s the victim? Who’s having the out-of-body-experience? Why?

Author and mentor Beth Terrell has written in previous columns about building a character with feelings, drives, and motivations, and now she takes us to the next level. What do our characters do? Beth breaks it down succinctly in this month’s column when she focuses on the reason behind the story.

Anatomy of a Crime

By Jaden (Beth) Terrell

Fingeprint Magnifying GlassFor the past few months, we’ve been focusing on your main character. Now it’s time to look at the crime. In a traditional mystery or procedural, the crime is generally a murder. In a caper story, it’s the heist. There may be more than one crime in the course of the story; often, as the investigation continues and the antagonist begins to feel cornered, there are subsequent murders. In a thriller, there may be an initial crime that gets the protagonist involved and an endgame he’s ultimately working to stop.

For each of these crimes, knowing what happened and what your main character needs to learn in order to prevail can help you determine which scenes are integral to your story. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume the initial crime is a murder. Then, we’ll briefly discuss variations for thrillers and other subgenres.

The Victim

Sometimes the victim of the crime is dead before the book begins. Sometimes he dies a few chapters in, after the reader has had a chance to meet him and form an opinion as to whether he was an innocent, a likable rogue, or someone who got what was coming to him. Either way, the identity of the victim and the reasons for his death are important, because they provide the motivation of the killer. Ask yourself these two questions:

  • Who was the victim? A bank teller skimming money from the till? An honest accountant who’s just realized that his agency’s best client is using him to launder money? A peeping tom who saw something he shouldn’t have?
  • Why did the killer target him? For revenge? For an inheritance? To cover up a crime? I read once that there are only five motivations for murder: power, greed, love/lust, revenge, and madness. Everything else falls under those headings. You might add fear—physical fear or fear of discovery—but the first borders on self-defense, and the second is redundant, since the thing the killer doesn’t want discovered probably falls under one of the given categories. But whether you distill the killer’s motivation down to one of those five categories or ascribe it to some other motivation altogether, you need to know why the victim died.

The Perpetrator

An intricately planned crime carried out by a hired assassin is very different from a crime of passion committed by a mild-mannered herbalist. Each of these killers is a suitable antagonist for a crime novel, but the former is more likely to be a hard-driving thriller, while the latter is likely to be a cozy or traditional novel. We’ll go into greater detail about your book’s antagonist next month, but for now, just ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is the killer? Is he physically strong? Agile? Clever? Does he stand out in a crowd or blend into the background? What special skills or resources does he have? Does he have wealth or a title to protect him?
  • How does he justify the crime? Does he see it as a necessary evil? Something he’s doing for the greater good? A way of getting something he feels is owed to him?
  • How close is he to the victim? Did they work together? Were they best friends? Were they having an affair?

Some authors like their villains to be terrifying. Others like them to be basically good people pushed to their breaking points—people who stand to lose something they simply can’t bear to lose. Whichever you choose, remember that the killer’s physical and mental capabilities combine with his personality to determine the kind of crime he’s likely to commit.

The Details

Based on what you know about the victim, the perpetrator, and the reasons for the murder, you should have a better understanding of how the victim was killed. Was it premeditated or impulsive? What weapon was used? Were there any witnesses? If so, does the killer know about them? If not, how did the killer make sure there would be none? How did the killer get the victim alone? Did the victim fight back? What time of day was it? Where did it happen? How long did it take? Was there any conversation? Did the victim scream? Were there gunshots? Why didn’t anyone hear?

Envision the scene as clearly as you can. You might even want to write a description of it, even if you don’t intend to use it in the book. Engage all the senses. It can be helpful to envision the scene twice, once from the point of view of the killer and once from the point of view of the victim.

I find it especially helpful to make a timeline of the crime. An excel spreadsheet or Word table works well, since you may want to print it out and keep it for future reference. Mine looks something like this:




10 PMViolent storm brings down a tree that creates a bridge over the broken glass.
10:15 PMTuyet helps Dung escape the shed. Gives her the photo with Jared’s number and address.
10:40 PMDung crosses the glass, climbs up the fallen tree, and goes over the fence.
MidnightGuards notice the fallen tree, one goes to check on the women. Boss Man sends men out to find Dung (who has been walking toward the city on her wounded feet).
3:30 AMW finds Dung, distracts,, etc..
4:00 AMKiller is in place.
4:15-4:25W drops off Dung. Hispanic girl coming home sees his car, sees K come out of the shadows and put his hands around Dung’s throat. Girl is frightened and accidentally knocks over neighbor’s garbage can. K looks toward Girl, snaps Dung’s neck. Girl, still in shadow runs. K puts Dung in dumpster and leaves on foot. He’s parked his car several blocks away and doesn’t think Girl could have recognized him in the dark.
4:40 AMW arrives home, makes excuses to wife.
5 AMK arrives back at compound
6 AMBoss Man calls client, arranges false alibis for W and K.

The Cover-up

In real life, if a murder is going to be solved, it usually happens quickly. The police walk in, and the wife is standing over her husband’s body holding a bloody knife, or the gangbanger is caught outside the victim’s house carrying a recently fired gun with bullets that match those found in the victim. The most obvious suspect is often the guilty party.

In fiction, the obvious solution would make for a pretty dull book. And even though I’ve heard many a police officer say most criminals are dumb, the antagonist in your book must be smart—a worthy opponent.

What would this particular character do to cover his tracks? Maybe he hides the body or stages the crime scene. Maybe he tries to frame another character. He wipes his fingerprints off the gun. He establishes an alibi. His skills, knowledge, and resources will determine the steps he takes to throw investigators off the trail.

The Trail

You know what happened, how it happened, and why it happened, and when. You know how the victim and the killer are connected. The next thing to ask yourself is: What clues will the protagonist need in order to solve the crime or keep the villain from succeeding?

If your protagonist is a law enforcement official, she might rely heavily on forensic evidence. She’ll have access to official databases and laboratory testing. Her badge will open doors—and close others.

If your sleuth is a florist, many of the investigative techniques open to a police officer or FBI agent are closed to her. Even if you give her an ally in law enforcement, the bulk of the information available to her will come through interviews or good old-fashioned snooping. You need to place the kind of clues an amateur sleuth could find.

In addition to interviews and snooping, a private investigator might have informants, allies on the police force or DMV, and electronic surveillance equipment. (You can find some ideas at Look under the “Spy Shop” tab.)

Make a list of clues and how your sleuth might find each one.



Where Found/Leaned

Distinctive tattooWitness describes, forensic artist draws, former snitch recognizes tattoo style
K’s history of violenceInterview with suspect’s sister
Partial license plateWitness describes, ally at DMV gives list of possible matches

You’ll use this list to generate scenes. From the table above, I can see that unearthing these three clues requires at least five scenes: an interview with the witness who describes the tattoo and the partial plate, a scene with the forensic artist, an encounter with a former snitch, an interview with the suspect’s sister, and some interplay with the ally at the DMV.

Some of these scenes will lead to other scenes, so even though I’m not outlining or writing yet, the story is beginning to take shape.

Other Subgenres

But what if you’re not writing a puzzle-type mystery? What if you’re writing a ticking clock thriller or a caper? The process isn’t that much different.

In a caper or heist story, like the film Oceans 11, the protagonist is the one committing the crime, but it’s no less important to know the details of the plan. It may take place near the end of the book rather than the beginning, but it’s a driving force in the plot. If the plan requires an acrobat to dance through a grid of laser beams, your protagonist will need to find an acrobat. You’ll need to know how they plan to escape, how they intend to keep from getting caught, and what their motivations are.

In a thriller, your main character may be trying to stop terrorists from deploying a nuclear device, but he still needs to follow clues to find them, and the terrorists still have a timeline without which their plan won’t work. Whether they hope to escape or plan to die for their cause, they’ll try to misdirect the authorities and avoid capture.

Whatever your story, knowing the anatomy of the crime that drives it can help you make the rest of the narrative more authentic and cohesive, as events grow naturally from the foundation you’ve created.

Beth TerrellJaden Terrell (Beth Terrell) is a Shamus Award finalist, a contributor to “Now Write! Mysteries” (a collection of writing exercises by Tarcher/Penguin), and the author of the Jared McKean private detective novels Racing The Devil, A Cup Full of Midnight, and River of Glass. Terrell is the special programs coordinator for the Killer Nashville conference and the winner of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (SEMWA). A former special education teacher, Terrell is now a writing coach and developmental editor whose leisure activities include ballroom dancing and equine massage therapy.

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