Mystery and crime novelist Russ Thomas explains how best to create a police procedural that will hook your reader and keep them coming back for more.
When I set out to write Nighthawking, it was with a certain trepidation. I’d heard about “that tricky second book,” of course, but I now had to deliver something by a certain date (I had about 18 months, which is not unreasonable but a good deal shorter than the ten years I had working on my debut). It had to be different from the first book but essentially contain all the same elements that people enjoyed the first time ’round. Oh, and it had to be good. Aargh!
One minor meltdown and a handful of furious writing sessions later, I realised I had one enormous advantage that I hadn’t had the first time: I’d done it before. I found I was making decisions much more quickly, and, perhaps more importantly, I was doubting them less. I found myself, almost intuitively, thinking things like, “That scene needs to come later” or “I need a conversation about xxx here.” It made me consider what those key ingredients were, and whether or not I might pass them on to writers who are where I was fifteen years ago. So, here they are. They aren’t rules as such, so let’s just call them Tips. 7 Tips for writing Police Procedurals that readers love. I hope they help.
1. Develop Your Cast
The main reason readers come back to a police procedural series again and again is to revisit their favourite characters. Spend time on your protagonist especially but also the supporting cast. Try writing them in different scenarios, unrelated to your main plot. Learn who they are, and by this, I don’t mean what star sign they are or what colour eyes they have (although if these things are important to you, fine, jot them down as you go). I mean, how do they respond in a crisis? Put them in a car crash or a house fire to see how they react. What are the issues that drive them? What are the skeletons in their closets? When you get to the point where the characters seem to be telling you what they want to do, you’ll know you have something special.
2. Maintain the Mystery
Start with a hook. On page one, preferably, but certainly as soon as possible. You then need to keep this central mystery foremost in the reader’s mind. Sometimes you might want to solve the mystery but make sure you set up the next one at the same time. Don’t give the reader time to wander off. Every scene in your book needs to answer a question or ask another one. If you can link this mystery to your protagonist in some way, all the better. Give your protagonist a reason to solve the mystery. ‘Because it’s my job’ is not a good enough reason alone. Explore what drives them to do their job so diligently.
3. Plot, Plot, Plot
If you don’t have a wall in your house that makes it look like an obsessive stalker lives there, you’re either incredibly talented or you’re not a police procedural writer. I have two giant corkboards (each is about 4ft by 6ft). That’s not to say I’m a Planner over a Pants-er: there’s a lot to be said, especially in the early days, for just making things up as you go along. But there comes a point, sooner or later, when you need to start knitting it together. String, photos, maps, timelines, coloured pins, character sheets – there’s no right way to do this so experiment and use what’s right for you. (I use multi-coloured index cards, one for each scene, the colour representing the viewpoint of the character from which I’m writing). This might seem a bit laborious to begin with but you’ll ultimately save time, especially if you have a bad memory like I do.
4. Do Your Research
But how much research is too much? You can put forever into this but if you do you’ll never get the book written. I do very little on my first draft, making notes in the margin or on a separate document about what I need to look into. This avoids me falling down a Google rabbit hole when I’m supposed to be working. It also means if I end up cutting the scene, I didn’t do a load of work for nothing. But at some point, you will have to do it. It might be fiction, but readers need to believe it. There are now any number of resources available online but remember police procedure differs from country to country, sometimes from state to state. Remember too that it is a work of fiction and you’re allowed some poetic licence. Even in real life, people break the rules sometimes. Just make sure the breaking of rules is acknowledged and the consequences explored. Final tip, don’t feel you have to ram it in just because you did the research. It should only be in there if it’s relevant to the story.
5. Keep it Simple
I’m afraid you don’t have as much licence to navel-gaze in a police procedural as you might do in other novels. That’s not to say your writing shouldn’t be beautiful and elegant. You’re allowed to use metaphors and allegories. You’re allowed to use words of more than two syllables. But keep the prose clean, crisp, and easy to follow. I actually think that’s true of all writing. Ursula Le Guin once said: “Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.”
6. Keep it Pacey
There are a number of different story structure models for you to work from but the W-plot structure is a favourite of mine. Overall, there will be several big events (sometimes called turns or twists) in your story as your protagonist faces the large obstacles you have created for them. But there should also be many more minor ones. Pack every scene full of conflict, no matter how small (losing the car keys, spilling a coffee, taking a wrong turn). As your character triumphs over, or copes, with these, you create a sense of rise and fall through the narrative while keeping things interesting. Just remember to save your biggest bang for last.
7. The Recap Dilemma
There is a danger lurking in police procedurals that I call the Recap Dilemma. There are moments when you need to refresh the reader’s memory about what has happened so far, or indeed, what the investigator plans to do next. These are difficult moments to negotiate for the writer as they inevitably slow down the pace. My advice: use them sparingly. If a character is standing around ‘telling’ the reader what they need to know, I can guarantee you the reader is beginning to switch off (especially if they’re clever and have worked it out for themselves). Dialogue can help (this is why detectives always have sidekicks with them) but even then it can stand out a mile. Set the conversation in an interesting location, have something else happening in the background to add to the flavour of the scene, and keep it short. Finally, finish with a bang! For example—a phone call announcing the discovery of a new body.