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Writing a Criminal Minds Inspired Mystery

Writing a Criminal Minds Inspired Mystery

plotting prose writing skills Apr 15, 2024

As a young child, I had Houdini-like determination to escape, the soft footsteps of a fun-sized kid, and insomnia. It was this perfect storm that led to one of my earliest memories being a television crime drama gruesome body discovery.

 

Did it scare me so badly that I refused to watch that particular crime drama until I was in my twenties despite watching Criminal Minds and Bones a decade earlier? Absolutely. Did it shape my young psyche into the mystery obsessed media consumer and creator that I am now? Probably.

Whether my love for mysteries began with this singular moment or hundreds of Saturday Scooby Doo’s, it offered a new path when I decided to branch out from the amateur sleuth and espionage-school mysteries. Scooby Doo had been a familiar pattern to start with, and Criminal Minds was a familiar path to continue with.

ALSO: Writing a Jeepers Creepers Mystery

The Criminal Minds Blueprint is a character and world building focused method to plot out a mystery – if you’re writing a Criminal Minds Mystery.

 

Which begs the question, what kind of mystery are you writing?

 

Solving Genres

Another mystery formula, another breakdown of what I have endearingly termed the solving-genres!

While there are many mystery sub-genres, there are only two solving-genres. The simplest definitions for these two solving-genres are evidence-based mysteries and observation-based mysteries.

An evidence-based mystery should include an abundance of forensics, formal detective work (to varying degrees), and an open world where suspects are unlimited. An observation-based mystery should include little-to-no forensics, informal sleuthing, and a closed world where suspects are limited. Think Criminal Minds or Bones versus Scooby Doo or Nancy Drew.

 

Another way to think about it is by actually using mystery sub-genres. A hardboiled will always be an evidence-based mystery. An amateur sleuth will always be an observation-based mystery. A private eye could be either, but will often lean toward evidence-based. A paranormal could be either, but will often lean toward observation-based.

The Criminal Minds Blueprint, and this article, is all about evidence-based mysteries.

 

The Criminal Minds Blueprint

Like with the Scooby Doo Method, we’re going to start by looking at the basic tenants the show itself establishes – the pillars that keep the show running even when one of the team is away on vacation. In an evidence-based mystery, there are three vital tenants that will suck your reader into your mystery and leave them enjoying every twist.

Open with a crime. Evidence-based mysteries lean into the procedural and criminal drama of a mystery. The main cast of characters will almost always be professional detectives of some capacity, and a crime being committed should be the catalyst for the main plot. It’s why we’re all – including the characters – here. The crime should always be committed and detected in the first few chapters. 

The criminal is unnamed, but still a main character. When forensics are involved, there is an intangible entity that often solves the crime, which leaves your reader unlikely to solve the mystery on their own. This can leave the reader feeling disconnected from the crime – unless you make it personal. The easiest way to do this is with a handful of chapters from the criminal’s (or victims’!) point of view.

It always ends in a cop car or coroner’s van. The bad guy always loses. An evidence-based mystery world is open, meaning the killer, thief, or blackmailer could be anyone. The only way to close the door on a case is to find the bad guy, even if it’s not the original culprit. Vigilante justice is illegal, but they’re not always the bad guy of the story. The mystery is only over when the bad guy faces the consequences and the detective.

A mystery that ignores these basic tenants will leave your readers buried under a theory board full of red thread.

 

 

The Hotch

Professionalism.

Arguably.

I am fully aware that labeling anyone on the BAU (Behavioral Analysis Unit for the uninitiated)  team as the pinnacle of professionalism is nothing more than a joke, which is why I included the arguably. And Hotch. He’s the closest they’ve ever come.

It’s also why professionalism in the Criminal Minds Blueprint has little to do with actually following the procedures of whatever institution your detective is working for and more to do with the fact that your detective should be working for some sort of institution.

 

 

Can that institution be their own LLC? Yes, absolutely, but a private eye is still a professional detective. This is their career, not something they were forced into because their brother was framed.

 

The Rossi

History.

Even if your reader is joining your detective as they stumble their way through the first case after graduating from The Academy, the  history of your characters as detectives is central because, once again, this is your detective’s career and they should know what they’re doing.

Your detective should have knowledge of how and why crimes are committed. Their relationship with their partner should either already exist or there should be expectations for what it will be. Even if this is your detective’s first case, they still went to and graduated from The Academy. Your detective knows what they’re doing. They’re not learning it as they go.

 

The Prentiss

Motive.

Call me Captain Obvious if you must, but it needed to be said.

You should know your criminal's motive before you start writing, and it should be believable. 

Can it be as simple as they’re a terrible person who loves causing pain? Absolutely, but decide that ahead of time. Don’t walk into your mystery writing a crime of passion and then flip-flop to the story of a cold-blooded serial killer. Your reader may not know the motive ahead of time, but they’ll be able to catch the inconsistent characterization.

 

 

The Morgan

Action.

Again a bit obvious, this time both in character choice and inclusion in the list at all, but I think it is an important enough aspect of an evidence-based mystery that it needs to be highlighted.

In an evidence-based mystery, the stakes are usually very high, and rightfully so. Evidence-based mysteries often revolve around serial crimes, criminals that escalate dramatically by the end of the novel, or trying to prevent a threat from becoming a crime. In turn, evidence-based mysteries are full of tension, and tension needs a release.

A car chase, a shoot out, a fist fight, or a silent stalking. Action is meant to relieve tension. And action doesn’t always need to be physical, a verbal argument can relieve just as much tension as a physical one.

ALSO: How to Write Fight Scenes

 

The Reid

Forensics.

The brains of the operation and the brains of the story.

 

Forensics is what allows evidence-based mystery worlds to be open instead of closed. The criminal doesn’t need to be part of the cast from the beginning because there is an all-seeing eye that can see beyond the pages of the book itself! But take away forensics and you’re risking a deus ex machina moment.

Forensics are also an integral aspect of Professionalism simply because forensics are part of most crime-solving procedures. Post mortems, chemical analysis, phone records, CCTV, finger prints, and even profiling are considered forensics. If a professional detective is involved, so is forensics.

 

The Jareau

Family.

Okay, a marriage and kids isn’t necessary, but it was the only thing I could think of to describe “A Personal Life” that was one word and fit with the vibe of the rest of the list (shout to the OCD!) So, family, but…you know…a personal life.

While the mystery should be the main plot, it shouldn’t be the only plot. Yes, the main character’s position as a detective is one of the most important aspects of this story (see: Professionalism), but a detective that isn’t anything more is a flat character. And a flat character is a character readers can’t connect with.

ALSO: Crafting Complex Characters

Most readers won’t be detectives and will have never solved a murder or caught a blackmailer before. Most readers will have had a fight with a best friend or a first date gone horribly wrong.

 

The Garcia

To be fully transparent, there’s a chance this one is a personal preference and not a necessity. But I’m the one writing the article and so I’m going to include it.
 

Hope.

 

As has been established, I have a deep love of mystery media. I do not, however, have a love of nihilistic media. There is a fine line between a physically dark story and an emotionally dark story, and that line is created by hope.

Don’t get me wrong. Mysteries—and especially evidence-based mysteries—should be true to the human experience. Sometimes, the detective is too late to save the missing person. Sometimes, the detective is too slow and gets shot. Sometimes, the detective thinks they’ve found true love, but it's really a criminal trying to get information. And that happens.

ALSO: Why is Literature so Important in a World that is Literally Dying

And bad guys should still face consequences. And the kids should still be okay. And the detective should still continue to think that life is worth living. 

There are plenty of unsolved crimes and forgotten deaths in the real world without adding more to the fictional world.

 

Miranda Rights

When you close your case (and finish your manuscript), the Criminal Minds Blueprint is a quick checklist to ensure your reader feels like they’re a fly on the wall of your detective’s office. The combination of unfamiliar procedural plot and familiar character arcs keeps your reader invested even when they’re not solving the case themselves.

Using the skeleton (pun intended) of the Criminal Minds Blueprint, you’ll have the bones you need to string together an engaging and exciting mystery. If you’re looking for detailed advice on articulation (we’re gonna beat this metaphor til it’s dead), check out The Plottery's Free Novel Plan, The Writer's Toolboox or Novel Plotting Academy.

 


 

FAQ

What type of mystery should I be writing?

Depending on where you look, you can find anywhere from 15 to 50+ subgenres of the mystery genre, and you should be writing type that you love to read! If you love all mysteries and have decision paralysis, I would suggest choosing a “solving-genre” and letting the rest fall into place.

 

What is the best POV for a mystery?

This can depend on the age range your mystery is intended for. Traditionally, but not always, middle grade and young adult novels are written in first person while new adult and adult novels are written in third person.

 

Should I have multiple POVs in a mystery?

A good mystery becomes a great mystery when your reader is invested – both in your characters and in the final resolution of the crime. The Criminal Minds Blueprint is one way to make sure you’ve got all the pieces of a story a reader will want to invest in.

 


Elizabeth Miles
Written for The Plottery

I’m Elizabeth Miles, but you can call me Lizzie! I am a full-time stay-at-home mom and part-time author during breaks from chasing down over-confident toddlers. Mystery, romance, and fantasy are my favorite genres for both reading and writing. You can find me on Instagram (@authorlizziem) and TikTok (@authorlizziemiles)!

 

 

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