An illustration of elements of a crime novel, with a writer on a typewriter in the middle
Getting published

How to write crime and thriller

Crime and thriller novels are some of the most exciting and multi-faceted books in publishing. Here, three editors from across Penguin break down the crime and thriller genre and give their top tips for writers looking to publish their novels.

How can you tell if a book is crime or thriller?

“The crime and thriller genre is incredibly versatile, where you can find something for everyone’s tastes,” says Katie Ellis-Brown, deputy publishing director at Harvill Secker. “You have all the fantastic fiction clearly positioned as crime by authors including Ian Rankin, Dorothy Koomson, Abir Mukherjee and Elly Griffiths.”

'The crime and thriller genre is incredibly versatile, where you can find something for everyone’s tastes'

“You also have a myriad of books which might not be classed as crime or thriller, but which can certainly sit adjacent to, if not fully within, the genre, like Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (a masterclass in suspense writing) and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Then there are all the sub-genres – from psychological suspense to legal thrillers to gothic mysteries – that really do make crime and thriller one of the most all-encompassing and varied areas of fiction, and thus, so incredibly stimulating.”

'There is so much room to be creative and original, as long as you're delivering a really compelling read'

It’s also an ever-changing and growing category of books. “The genre has progressed a really long way since Agatha Christie, but that kind of old-fashioned mystery is still what many people think of when they hear ‘crime novel'. And similarly, people might think all thrillers are like James Bond, with a suave spy saving the world from a supervillain,” says Joel Richardson, publisher for crime and thriller fiction at Penguin Michael Joseph.

“There’s just so much more variety than that – just look at Janice Hallett’s brilliant The Appeal which is told entirely through emails and text messages, or Imran Mahmood’s incredible You Don’t Know Me which is all from the perspective of a young man on trial for murder, making his closing speech – there is so much room to be creative and original, as long as you’re delivering a really compelling read.”

But while there are no hard and fast rules as to what makes a book crime or thriller, there are some general things to look out for. “A crime novel tends to focus on a murder or crime and present the reader with several potential suspects. These books are sometimes mysteries, but they always have an unknown criminal at their heart and the tension comes from whether the culprit will be unmasked,” explains Finn Cotton, senior commissioning editor at Transworld. “Thrillers tend to be more linear in style and they build suspense by using the threat of an approaching crime. In a thriller, the reader is often introduced to the villain early in the story, but the drama comes from whether the protagonist will be able to stop them in time.”

'In a thriller, the reader is often introduced to the villain early in the story, but the drama comes from whether the protagonist will be able to stop them in time'

What are crime and thriller editors looking for?

“I tend to look for a distinctive voice, a style of writing or telling a story that feels unique and different to all the other authors out there,” says Finn. “We read so many submissions, that I’m drawn to originality, whether it’s an unusual take on the genre, a character who feels new and fresh, or a particular theme or setting that hasn’t been explored before.

“If you break your favourite crime novel down and think about which elements you enjoyed, those are the sort of things you want to include in your own novel. For me, I always want the twists to be genuinely surprising, but also for there to be subtle clues and red herrings seeded throughout that keep me guessing as I read. Memorable, distinctive characters who I want to spend time with and want to learn more about are important. So is tension and suspense, and an intriguing plot that builds to a satisfying ending.”

Katie's top tips for writing a crime or thriller novel

1. Keep your plot air-tight and compelling

Planning is key. Every element of your story has to fit together to make the bigger picture – so no twists for a twists’ sake. If there is a twist in your story, it needs to be integral to the plot, not simply used as a way to misdirect the reader for the fun of it.

2. Create memorable characters that are full of depth

This is true for any novel, you’ve got to have a character that your reader wants to read about – not necessarily like, or even care about – but a character who they can’t get out of their head and who they want to follow on their journey.

3. Raise the stakes and make your reader really feel something

A novel goes from good to brilliant when you evoke a strong emotional response in your reader. Note I didn’t specify a ‘positive’ response here as you can never please everyone. Sometimes a brilliant book is the one that divides opinion but has everyone talking about it, regardless.

Know the importance of your book's 'hook'

A ‘hook’ is a tagline for your book – a clear and concise sentence that contains the central elements of the novel. Editors and agents are always on the lookout for a book that can be distilled into a few exciting lines, so alongside the writing (!), spending time on understanding your book’s hook is important if you are looking to publish a crime or thriller novel.

'Spending time on understanding your book’s hook is important if you are looking to publish a crime or thriller novel'

“The first thing I look for is whether or not the book has a really exciting concept – is there something really original, clever or intriguing about the agent’s pitch email that makes me excited to start reading?” says Joel. "That’s important because, for the book to succeed, we’ll need to make it sound exciting to journalists and booksellers and (most importantly of all!) to readers, who will be choosing between endless options.”

The hook also helps publishers identify whether the book will fit alongside the rest of their publishing. Katie says: “I want a truly diverse list of books that appeal to readers of all kinds of crime and thriller novels. This also makes sense from a commercial point of view – it means that each book has its own space, giving every author the best chance possible to succeed in what is a highly competitive market.”

What do editors look for in a debut novelist?

“When reading submissions from debut novelists I am looking for the same things I am with submissions from any novelist, regardless of experience,” says Katie. “Is it a book I have an editorial and commercial vision for? Do I believe I can help the author shape it into the best version of itself possible? Is it a book I believe I can make a success? Is the author someone I can help to develop their craft?

“The one difference in my approach to a debut novelist to another writer is that I don’t expect a debut novelist to be as polished – why would they be when it‘s their first book! I enjoy being the kind of editor who can nurture new writers and invest extra support in a debut author as they start out in their writing career.”

'I enjoy being the kind of editor who can nurture new writers and invest extra support in a debut author as they start out in their writing career'

Joel adds: “We know that we can work with an author to edit their book to fix anything that’s not quite working, which means I’m always more drawn to a book that does at least one thing unbelievably well, even if other bits need work, as opposed to something that’s quite good in all aspects but without the wow-factor.

“My number one piece of advice for aspiring writers is to read widely in the genre you’re writing in! Wander around your local bookshop’s crime and thriller section or online and see what jumps out at you. You’ll become familiar with the range of books and get a sense of what makes a brilliant one in this genre, but also how you can make yours stand out. The crime and thriller writing community is known for being one of the friendliest and most welcoming around, so if you have a chance to go to a book event or even just to follow your favourite authors on Twitter, you’ll find they’re a really welcoming bunch.”

Feeling ready to start writing your own crime or thriller novel, or finesse work you’ve already started? Head over to WriteNow to submit your book before midnight on Sunday 8 January 2023.

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Hero illustration: Mike Ellis for Penguin