The 5 Pillars Of Police Procedurals

The 5 Pillars Of Police Procedurals


Are you writing a detective crime story? In this post, we look at how the five pillars of police procedurals can improve your story.

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In this post, we will be exploring the five pillars of police procedurals.

What Is A Police Procedural?

A police procedural is a novel that focuses on how the police solve a crime, usually a murder. It usually concentrates on how a policeman in a police department works to solve a crime. Even if the main detective is a maverick, the structure of the police force is important.

Readers who like the genre want to see how the hierarchy in a police department works, how they gather evidence, how forensics are involved, how witnesses are found, and how interviews with suspects are conducted.

Some of the greatest crime writers write police procedurals. In modern crime fiction, Ian Rankin (with Inspector John Rebus), Michael Connelly (with Detective Harry Bosch), and Jeffery Deaver (with Lincoln Rhyme) have made long careers out of this genre.

Other well-known writers and their detectives include: Ann Cleeves (with Detective Inspector Jimmy Pérez and Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope), Ngaio Marsh (with Roderick Alleyn), Colin Dexter (with Inspector Morse), Reginald Hill (with Dalziel and Pascoe), P.D. James (with Adam Dalgleish), Ruth Rendell (with Inspector Wexford), James Patterson (with Alex Cross), and John Sandford (with Lucas Davenport).

The 5 Pillars Of Police Procedurals

Pillar One – Recurring Characters

The story is told through the viewpoint of the main character. Most police procedurals also use the viewpoint of the main detective’s partner as well. This sometimes becomes a sub-plot on its own. The main character relies on other people to help solve the crime.

Authors should take time to develop characters they will have to live with for many years. Use our detailed character questionnaire for your main characters.

  1. The main recurring character is the detective who investigates the crime. These characters are usually dedicated to, maybe even obsessed with, solving the crime. They are often mavericks. They are the protagonist.
  2. The second character is usually their partner or the detective under them. This character’s role is also to detect, although their actions are usually instigated by the main character’s instructions. They are usually the main character’s confidant.
  3. The third recurring character is usually the main character’s love interest. They usually have a fractious relationship and these characters can change over the years.
  4. Other recurring characters include forensic experts, police superiors, lawyers, and other detectives.
  5. Some police procedural series have a recurring antagonist who always eludes the main character, but this is not necessary for the genre.

Readers love to return to the world you’ve created and they like the comfort of these recurring characters. Genres are successful because we know what to expect and the main characters are one of those things.

Pillar Two – Start With A Question, End With An Answer

People who read police procedurals are not interested in literary endings. They want commercial endings where the question that started the story is answered.

  1. So, at the beginning of a police procedural, a crime (usually a murder) is committed. The Question: Who committed the crime? is asked. Finding out who committed the crime becomes the story goal.
  2. At the end of the book, the author must answer that question through the brilliant detective work of their main character. We also (usually) find out how, when, where, and why they committed the crime.

This is crucial for the genre. Most people read detective fiction because justice is served – unlike real life where many crimes are unsolved or perpetrators get off free.

Pillar Three – Use A Plot

Police procedurals do not work well without a plot. These stories need structure. Our definition of a plot is as follows and this works extremely well for this genre.

“You have a plot when:

  1. An action (inciting moment) somewhere (setting),
  2. Taken by somebody (your antagonist),
  3. Has a negative impact on somebody else (your protagonist).
  4. This creates a problem
  5. That your protagonist must solve (story goal) by acting,
  6. Which leads to confrontations with the antagonist (conflict in scenes and sequels).
  7. This goes on for approximately 60-80 scenes and sequels.
  8. Your protagonist is supported by somebody (confidant),
  9. And made aware of his or her weaknesses by somebody else (love interest)
  10. Until he or she achieves, or fails to achieve, the story goal. (ending)”

Create a timeline for your book and make sure that all the scenes match up with the timing of the crimes and the evidence collected.

Tip: Remember that you can use red herrings (not too many) to add to the conflict along the way. Other devices like MacGuffins and Chekhov’s Gun can be included.

Pillar Four – Keep Up The Pace

Good pacing is important in police procedurals. To get readers to keep turning the page, we need to include conflict, cliffhangers, twists, foreshadowing, plenty of action, and moments of reflection.

Make sure that your detective always has something to do. There should be plenty of leads to follow, suspects to interview, post mortems to attend, and forensic experts to interrogate. You can also add another murder or two along the way.

Movement is crucial in these stories. Readers like to feel that they are getting somewhere along with the detective. The main character may have moments of doubt and self-reflection, but these are always followed by a proactive spurt.

Pillar Five  – Do Your Research

Readers of police procedurals usually know a lot about police procedures. Authors should know as much as possible about them as well.

  1. If you are writing in a certain country or city, research that police department, interview detectives, ask if you can ride along on a case.
  2. If the country has many law enforcement agencies, find out where your detective fits.
  3. If you are going to use a forensic expert, find out how they work. Interview them if you can and ask somebody knowledgeable to read through your scenes involving them.
  4. If you are going to write about the death itself, find out as much as you can.
  5. If you are going to write about a post mortem in any detail, research it. Again, interview a coroner if you can. Find out how they operate.
  6. If your detective interacts with the courts and lawyers, find out how they work.

For more on this subject, read: How to Write a Well-Researched Police Procedural

The Last Word

The police procedural is perhaps one of the most formulaic of the genres. But, you can still create a wonderful world filled with interesting characters in this genre. If you take time to develop your characters and do the research, you could have a long, illustrious career as a crime fiction writer.

If you want more crime writing resources, read: 50 (or so) Fabulous Resources For Crime Writers

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

 by Amanda Patterson
© Amanda Patterson

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Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

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