How Not to Write a Crime Report

If you want your book to bomb on the first page, you’ll write it like a crime report. Properly-written crime reports are boring narratives that tell “Just the Facts, Ma’am”. There’s no show, no dialogue, no plot, no characterization—not even red herrings—only a running exposition starting at A and ending at Z.

Crime reports are supposed to go that way. They’re neutral documents devoid of any soul or any sense of personal voice or individual opinion. The whole purpose of a crime report is to convey impartial details of the investigation and document evidence with links to supporting witnesses.

I’ve written lots of crime reports as a detective. I’ve written everything from prosecutor briefs to search warrant applications to wiretap affidavits to press releases. All had to be letter-perfect because they’re legal documents that’d bite your butt if you deviated outside the norm.

Crime reports follow a vanilla flow, and they’re intentionally templated. You begin by telling the end. Then, you prop-up the middle with point-by-point factual support.

Snoozeville…

I was a writing zombie after three decades in the legal report industry. That included my stint pumping out written judgments in the death business. I was so bureaucratically brainwashed that I knew nothing about active voice, nothing about dialogue voice, and nothing about developing my personal voice.

To say it was tough to deprogram and reprogram is an understatement. I knew long ago that I wanted to commercially crime write (true and fiction) in my senior years. Problem was—I didn’t have a clue how to do it. I had horrible habits to break, and I had no one to mentor me except for millions of words written by hundreds of authors who’d managed to successfully sell their work.

“Hey!” I said to myself. “Maybe I can learn something from them.”

So, I went on a year-long mission to break myself down and build myself up. John Grisham. Joseph Wambaugh. Frederick Forsyth. Agatha Christie. Ann Rule. Val McDermid. Ian Rankin. Michael Connelly. David Baldacci. Paula Hawkins and Fiona Barton. Even Stephen King and James Patterson. I studied them all and dissected how they honed their craft.

I made friends with the new wave of crime thriller writers. Some traditionally published. Some indies. Adam Croft. Louise Penny. Caroline Mitchell. Rachel Amphlett. Scott Pratt. Mel Sherratt. John Ellsworth. John Gilstrap. LJ Ross, Rachel Abbott and my BFF, Sue Coletta.

These women and men are talented in their own special way. They have their style, their voice, their storytelling angle, point of view, and their quirks and quarks. But, all have one common thing. They don’t write crime reports.

A crime report goes like this:

On Sunday, 01-11-20, 69-year-old Berndt Lankenau and his 64-year-old wife, Erika Lankenau, the owners of Shooting Sports Supply located at 3125 Island Highway North, were found murdered inside their gun store business. Both were observed lying face down on the floor and had been shot in the back of the head. Mrs. Lankenau suffered one fatal gunshot. Mr. Lankenau experienced two bullet wounds that caused his immediate death. No suspects have yet been identified. The motive appears to be a robbery turned into executions. Update to follow.

A crime story goes like this:

Prologue — Saturday, January 11th – 5:30 pm

“On the floor!”

Erika Lankenau and her husband, Berndt, stood in silent shock.

“Get on the floor! Facedown! On the floor!”

The owners of Shooting Sports Supply, a prominent Vancouver Island gun store, froze.

Erika’s mouth opened. No words came out.

Berndt Lankenau inched up his hands. His empty palms faced forward.

“You heard it! Get on the fucking floor! Right fucking now!”

“Wha… what is dis business?” Sixty-nine-year-old Berndt Lankenau asked in his German accent.

“Just do what you’re told and no one gets hurt.”

Erika Lankenau, sixty-four, bent her knees. “Do as ve’re told, Berndt. Do as ve’re told.”

“Listen to her, old man. Get your fucking face down on the floor or you’re dead.”

Berndt swallowed. He kept eye contact. Slowly, Berndt lowered and put his right hand on the floor. “Ve don’t vant no trouble.”

Erika lay in a prone position, her face on the cold concrete with her left arm stretched ahead. Her right hand felt for Berndt.

Berndt also obeyed. His arms surrendered beyond his head and his face was on the floor.

“One… Two… Three.”

Bang! Ba-Bang!

This excerpt is the opening from my work-in-progress titled On The Floor. It’s the fifth in my based-on-true-crime series and is about a shocking, sickening, and senseless double homicide I worked on as a detective. Who did it and why? I did not see that coming.

But, what I’ve learned about writing engaging crime stories (so far, and it’s something I’ll never stop learning) is there’s a lot to know. A big learning curve. It’s nothing like writing crime reports—probably the opposite.

Just writing effective dialogue is tricky. I try not to use dialogue tags, and I identify speakers with beats and prompts and hints. The main thing—as I see—is to keep the story rolling and not take the reader out of their suspension of belief/disbelief by wondering who’s saying what, yet not plug the manuscript full of “he said/said she” tags.

Active voice, in my opinion, is crucial to keeping the action flow. This was a tough switch because crime reporting is all done in passive style whereas polished crime and thriller storytellers prominently use active voice. I still fall into the passive trap and many times don’t recognize I’ve slipped.

Show vs tell? Crime reports are all tell and no show. Without getting too hung up about the biggest debate in fiction writing, I try to show what I can in exposition and then tell where it needs to speed things up. And, I believe effective dialogue “shows as it tells” if that makes sense.

Characterization never happens in crime reports. Never. It’s just not done because this brings in the writer’s opinion and that’s not allowed. Ever. Characterization is vital to crime storytelling, though. It’s what makes the reader care… or despise.

Plot? Plot is something I think should be present throughout every part of the story. Probably every word. Plot starts at A and ends at Z, but it’s best plot be subtle, subsurface, and not explained.

Plot might be the key to successful crime writing—above everything else—and plot is what a crime writer must meticulously plan/frame/weave their story into. Everything a crime writer does with dialogue, characterization, and showing & telling has to further the plot. Some might disagree with me about micro-planning, but I don’t want to get into a pantster vs plotter fight.

Point of view? Ha! Crime reports are the epitome of third-party omniscience. Even when the detective has to refer to themself (themselves?), the accepted report format manner is “the writer”. *shivers*

Grammar? Punctuation? Contractions? Tense? Alliteration? Simile or metaphor? Head hopping? Hooks and cliffhangers? Foreshadowing? And all the rest?

No one ever said writing in English is easy. That goes for crime report writers and crime storytellers. I struggle with plot, dialogue, characterization, show and tell, voice, and a whole lot of stuff. I still can’t master the almighty comma. Probably never will.

But, I try not to write crime reports any more.

And, I pay a storytelling editor to help me.

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner. Now, Garry is an investigative crime writer and successful indie author with a based-on-true-crime series including In The Attic, Under The Ground, From The Shadows and Beside The Road. On The Floor is the next release.

Garry hosts a popular blog at DyingWords.net where he provokes thoughts on life, death, and writing. Connect with Garry Rodgers at DyingWords, Bookbub , Twitter and visit his Amazon Profile.

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31 thoughts on “How Not to Write a Crime Report

  1. Garry, what a great follow-up to PJ’s post on showing vs telling.
    And what a great wealth of stories you have to draw upon.
    (My editor fixes my commas, too.)

    • I have a writing friend who says to use commas the way you breathe when talking. That makes sense but doesn’t seem to conform with the Chicago Manual of Style. Lots of stories in the memory bank, Terry, but some aren’t all that exciting.

      • I remember being given the same advice–insert commas as you would if you’re talking and breathing–in the fourth grade. It’s advice I still try to adhere to.

        The advice seems to violate ALL of the comma rules in ALL of the style guides. Alas, even Strunk and White seem to think I am gross, and in the stylistic equivalent of needing a shower. And alas(er), I’m an English major with an emphasis in writing.

        • I’m curious, Jim – where do you stand on the Oxford/Serial comma? I stopped using them when I was writing commercial web content but I’ve gone back to them in fiction. I don’t see how you can get in trouble with them. However, you certainly can send the wrong message without them.

          • I have long been an advocate of the Oxford/Serial Comma. My best friend and I were in business together doing freelance public relations/publicity writing assignments. His background was in newspaper journalism–mine, as I said, was as an English major and writer of fiction and non-fiction. We would have major arguments about whether or not to put that comma in. We learned our lesson when a client’s story ran, and he had a massive response to it. (I don’t recall the exact copy anymore, so I won’t try to replicate it here.) Our client had to honor an implied customer bonus because, without that comma, there was no way to prove that the offer had limits. You can bet that I e-mailed my friend the story about the court’s attitude to the Oxford Comma. (By the way, the client’s attorney advised our client to forget any action against us as he, the client, was the agent of his business who would have approved the text of the release before sending it to the publication.) That’s been so long ago that I think we wrote the release on either a typewriter or with a hammer and chisel on stone.

            • Thanks, Jim. I remember reading about a Supreme Court ruling where an Oxford comma could have saved the day. I think the only reasoning behind not using them is to help speed up scanning which most “readers” these days tend to do.

      • I had an editor who decided to add commas to one of my novels. I went through about twenty pages, counted all the unnecessary commas, then did the math for how many were in the whole manuscript. Hint: An appalling amount. I complained and explained all her errors, she fussed about knowing best and using the breathing method, and I countered with I’m a frigging English teacher with over two degrees and years of experience. She shut up, and I gave her a clean manuscript to start over with. What an idiot.

  2. Garry, kudos on your transition from nonfiction to fiction. Breaking those ingrained habits is hard. Many learned, experienced nonfic professionals write fiction that is as dull as a drawer full of butter knives.

    In my editing work, I’ve found the ones who struggle the most are technical writers, doctors, and attorneys. Their training requires squelching all emotion and voice. However, b/c they know how to put words together skillfully, once they learn to infuse feeling and color into their stories, their writing sings.

    • Thanks, Debbie. Yeah, voice isn’t something they encourage at the police academy’s report writing class. The whole place is designed around parking emotions.

  3. Hi Garry,

    This neatly illustrates the difference between telling in a crime report and showing in a crime story, as well as the difference in POV. I really relate to this, because for many years I had to write up security incident /person-in-charge reports at the library when I was involved in a “situation,” which could be a medical emergency, an episode of drug abuse, a patron acting out or threatening others, etc.

    We had to write them very much in the style of a police report, dry objective account. Just the facts, as you said. When it was a patron causing a disturbance, threatening others etc, we included ethnic/gender/age descriptors (ex: WMA), physical description, including height and weight. Writing about myself in the third person always felt a little odd, but necessary for the distancing it produced.

    I was fortunate that the last branch I worked at had fewer “security incidents” than many other location in my system, so I might have to write one of these up every so often, not daily like some of my colleagues did.

    Often these reports would have written observations from multiple staff if, as was hopefully the case most if not all of the time, there was more than one staff member witnessing or actually involved in the event being reported. Was that case for you as a murder cop? Or was one person assigned to write up the crime report?

    I’m with you on commas. The struggle is real 🙂 I don’t know if I’ll ever truly master them. I’ve started using Pro Writing Aid, a software program, to supplement the comma help I get from my beta readers and my copy editor.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • Dale, sometimes you make your library career sound like a fast-paced action novel. I had no idea it could be so much danged fun.

      My grandparents had library careers, she in the book repair department, he driving the bookmobile. Now I wish I’d asked them a few questions…

      • Thanks, Deb! It definitely had its fast paced, and occasionally suspenseful, moments. It could also be very laid back, and all about the books. The best part was helping people learn all ways the library could help them.

        Very cool that your grandparents had library careers! I’ll bet both had seen some interesting things. Libraries are definitely more than the hushed reading room seen in old TV shows 😉

  4. It must be tough for someone trained to write fiction to jump into a police/security role and have to write a report that conforms to “the rules”. Probably worse for a scriptwriter or poet – could be quite hilarious when you think about it 🙂 Thanks for your support, Dale!

    • I always surprised I didn’t get more ribbing for being the fiction writer having to write an incident report. My former coworkers were very kind 🙂

  5. Hi Garry,

    In my current WIP, I actually do have a crime report! Excerpt below. Does it sound realistic? What would you change? I did just notice there’s no date.

    “Four-year-old female homicide victim. Body—partially wrapped in a sheet—discovered in a ravine along I-82, near the Fred Redmon Bridge, which spans the Selah Creek at a height of 325 feet. She was found halfway down the eastern slope on the north side of the bridge.
    ME estimates child had been deceased between two and three months when she was found. Forensics at the scene indicate body had been transported from another location and dumped.
    Cause of death probably blunt-force trauma to the head and chest. Burns on thighs and arms consistent with use of a curling iron. Blood under fingernails—but not the victim’s blood-type. Condition of scalp indicate hair yanked out by the roots. Animal bites, probably coyote, scattered over trunk and head. Right foot missing, evidence consistent with being chewed off.”

    Thanks!

  6. A writer friend who was kind enough to read my first novel said, “The scene may be alive for you, but it’s still in your head and not on the paper.”

    At the time, I wasn’t being hampered by my training as a literary scholar but my fear of losing the story that was pouring through me on to the paper. (Yes, my first novel was pure pantster.) Lots of heavy rewriting ensued to flesh out my scenes. Much later as I worked with newer writers, I discovered that this an extremely common problem, whatever the writer’s professional background.

    My own weaknesses that I carried over from eight years getting degrees in literary analysis around very smart people was my natural tendency for big words and more formal sentence structure. PRO TIP: If you are using semicolons while writing popular fiction, your narrative style is nonfiction, not fiction. Death to most semicolons!

  7. Garry, thanks so much for this, particularly for the side-by-side (well, upstairs downstairs) examples contrasting crime reports with prologue. I am lousy at following directions but excel at deciphering exploded view drawings, and your example here is just the berries.

  8. Garry, I can relate! All my professional background was in software development. I think in terms of IF-THEN-ELSE constructs and DO loops, and most of my writing experience lay in template-driven status reports, program specifications, user guides, and performance reviews — not the stuff of imagination.

    However, the creative urge will not be denied. I would occasionally sneak an Easter egg into a doc, like quoting T.S. Eliot’s “a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of a toast and tea” on the umpteenth revision of a technical doc. Someone higher up took that one out.

    I agree with you that making the transition to creative writing is hard, but it sure is fun. I feel like a kid who woke up one morning and found someone had built an entire amusement park in the backyard. I want to try out all the rides — from the Oxford comma merry-go-round to the show-don’t-tell sliding board. Then there’s the plotter/pantser roller coaster …

    • I burst out laughing when I read your amusement park analogy, Kay. Great comparison 🙂 While we’re on the merry-go-round, what’s your take on the Oxford comma? BTW, I’m a plantster.

  9. I’m all about clarity; hence, I love the Oxford comma. (And it took me a while to figure out how to include the oft-disparaged semi-colon in my reply. Don’t think less of me for it!)

    I am also a plantser. I put a little plot oil in the pan before I throw in all the pantsing ingredients for my story stir-fry.

  10. My husband, a retired Sheriff’s Patrol Sargent, and I go round and round about facts vs fiction and believability. He’s my consultant for police procedures and criminal activity, actions, and of course gun terminology. I understand his tendency to keep it all cut and dry facts, but I tell him, “Yes, but this is fiction. I want it realistic but not down to every dotted i and t. So, is this (insert whatever scene I’ve devised) plausible?” Bless his heart, after five published novels, he’s very good at not only giving me plausible scenarios, but he also has helped me create a fantasy weapon for my dip into the fantasy genre. The weapon is a blend of an actual weapon with fictional aspects. What fun!

    Loved this post. Thanks for sharing your insights with us, Garry.

    • Happy to hear you enjoyed it, Cecilia. There’s nothing wrong with altering the facts to suit fiction… as long as you don’t get caught 🙂 Also, great to have an in-house resource person who agrees to plausible deniability.

      • You and my husband sound too much alike. 😉 Happily, I don’t write true crime. I write supernatural thrillers and fantasy, but I still want that vein of plausibility to lend a touch of realism. 😀

  11. BFF? I thought I was your online wife. 😉

    Remember Scoobs (aka Kimberly McGath)? She told me she used to get in trouble with the LT for writing her crime reports with an author’s flare. Too many 25c words for the brass. 🙂

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