Elements of Crime EQ: What defines a crime story?

All art has the same goal: catharsis. Catharsis is the purification of emotions first described by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that if one did not purge their built up emotions by getting lost in an artistic work--be it a play, a poem, a painting, a book, a film, or a sculpture--that person would become unhealthy. Specifically, modern psychologists know that bottling these emotions causes one to either have a breakdown or a blow-up.

Different genres of art purify different emotions. Both mystery and crime specifically bounce between the emotions of alarm, which is a mix of surprise and fear, and curiosity, a mix of surprise and trust. A good crime story will constantly surprise audiences with the decisions characters make, alarm them through various acts of violence, and pique their curiosity with how the characters will pull off their plan.

Before we start, it's important to understand the difference between the genres of mystery and crime. Mystery follows the perspective of the detective character, who tries to discover who the culprit is that committed a crime--the surprise at the end is the identity of the culprit. Crime follows the perspective of the culprit some if not most of the time. Stories that go between the detective's view and the culprit's view (like The Silence of the Lambs or The Dark Knight) are considered crime as the ultimate surprise is not who did the crime but if the culprit will get away with the crime.


The main character of a crime story is a culprit, defined as someone who is to blame for a crime that has occurred or will occur. Often, a culprit won't be alone, but will be part of a crew. A stereotypical crew in a traditional crime story consists of a boss, who comes up with the schemes and is in charge; the brains, who figures out the complex details of the crime and is often skilled in hacking or safecracking; the muscle, who carried out any significant violence and defends the crew; the face, a con artist who excels at deception and distraction; the wheels, a driver who makes sure the crew escapes the law; and occasionally a fall guy, who may or may not be a member of the crew but who will accept all the blame should the crime not succeed. Small crews often see characters share roles: a boss may be also be the brains and the face, for example. Large crews have roles occupied by more than one character: a crew could have three guys just as muscle. The protagonist in a crime story can be any member of the crew.

Help from the Inside

Most crime stories have an additional character role: the inside man. Typically, the inside man is a member of the crew (often the face) who infiltrates the bank, rival gang, or even the police to get important information or orchestrate the crime from the inside (hence "inside man"). For example, Alonzo in Training Day is actually an inside man for the Russian mob who is about to be killed for his involvement. In The Ladykillers, D'Wayne gets a job at the casino so he can cover up the crew's heist.

There is also a second type of inside man: police who go inside the crew to dismantle their criminal operation. In Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Orange turns out to be an officer who has been feeding the police information for weeks (which is why the robbery went south). In The Departed, Billy Costigan becomes an inside man for the police by joining Frank Costello's gang at the same time as Colin Sullivan is a member of the gang infiltrating the police department.

"Will they get away with it?"

Once a crime story establishes the crew, the crew then has to do something-- i.e., a crime. The crime drives the plot of the story, as the audience should focus on this question until the very end: will they get away with it? There are four general categories of crimes they can commit:

  • THE HEIST: The crew plans a complicated robbery of high-priced target (Heat, Ocean's 11, Inception, Rififi)
  • THE SPREE: The culprit or crew plans a string of crimes until they can be stopped (The Dark Knight, Bonnie and Clyde, The Silence of the Lambs)
  • THE FUGITIVE: The culprit is on the run from the law--often the fugitive is wrongly accused person trying to clear their name (Reservoir Dogs, The Fugitive, Prison Break)
  • THE GANG WAR: The crew is engaged in organized crime (street gang, mafia, etc) and is engaged in street warfare with a rival gang, the police, or both (Goodfellas, The Godfather, Gangs of New York, City of God)
Shaky Trust

In order to execute the crime, the crew has to work as a team and trust one another. Yet everyone of them is a criminal, which fosters immediate doubt. The Culprit will encounter multiple moments of doubt with the rest of the crew, whether spoken aloud or as part of an inner monologue. Will they hold up their end of the plan? Are they secret a cop? Will they let me leave when this is over or will they try to kill me? Doubts work a bit differently in fugitive stories, where the innocent culprit must plant doubts in the mind of their pursuer if they are really guilty. These doubts amp up the tension of the plot and make the audience doubt in turn the central question of will they get away with it?


Every crime has an end goal for the crew, and almost always that goal is to get paid. Whether it's as part of a robbery or fighting competitors in an illegal business, most crew members are only in it for the payday. However, one member of the crew is in it for more than just money. In almost every crime story, the person planning the crime has an ulterior motive of revenge against the victims of the crime. This is emphasized when a single culprit is trying to pull off a crime. Sometimes, the thirst for vengeance is against a larger concept, like banks or beautiful women--this motive often inspires spree crimes. The vengeance motive is used to give characters depth and increase doubt on whether the crime will come off: more complex crimes are more likely to fail.

The Moral Gray

More doubts creep in when any trouble starts. A perfect crew would respond to trouble the same way--but where's the tension in that? Most writers present a problem with the plan--an unintended hostage, a missed timer, a secret alarm that was unaccounted for-- and have the crew debate on how to deal with it. There will be more saintly members who don't want to cause violence, while others solve everything with a bullet. Some members will want to quit while they're ahead and others will want to finish the job. These tensions help drive the plot forward and make success even shakier.


Eventually, some of the doubts are confirmed, as there is no honor among thieves. At least one character has their secrets come out. Maybe the inside man is exposed. Maybe the fall guy is betrayed. Maybe the boss's secret vendetta is exposed. Right before the end of the story, there is a twist and betrayal that the crew resolves... usually with a bullet. Yet once the betrayal is dealt with, the remaining crew comes together, no longer doubting one another. In wrongfully accuses fugitive stories, this is where the culprit proves his innocence to the detective and they move forward as a team to catch the real culprit. This twist toward unity is need to surprise the reader and amp up the tension right before...

The Last Stand

Crime stories always end with a last stand. This can be between two characters (like in Double Indemnity) or dozens of characters (like in Heat). This can be a conversation (like in Inside Man and Snatch), a blind manhunt (like in The Silence of the Lambs), or a shootout (like in Bonnie and Clyde). There may be a resolution scene after this, but there is always a climactic battle of either weapons of wits at the end that answers the question of will they get away with it?

Crime Subgenres
  • SPY THRILLERS: Spy thrillers fall into the genre of crime, as spies are sent on missions to capture an important object or information (heist), defeat enemy camps (spree), smuggle people in and out of countries (fugitive), and lead teams of agent to defeat foreign adversaries (gang war). Spies often act like culprits, as they use assumed names and cannot be caught by their adversaries.
  • PSYCHOLOGICAL CRIME: These stories are not about physical death, robbery, and kidnapping, but psychological battles and crime. Psychological crime has made great strides in the past 25 years, and now includes well known examples in every type of story: heist (Inception), spree (Mildred Pierce), fugitive (Memento), and even "gang wars" of two different parts of a psyche (American Psycho).
  • PROCEDURAL CRIME: This straddles both mystery and crime as it examines the legal process after a criminal is caught going to conviction. Some procedural crimes, like CSI and Law and Order follow the detectives and are therefore mysteries; others, like Oz or The Wire, focus on the culprits (innocent or not) and are therefore crime stories. These function a bit differently, as the crime is passed and the question is will they get punished for it?

Works Referenced

Bonnie and Clyde. Directed by Arthur Penn, featuring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Warner Bros./Seven Arts, 1967.

Cain, James. Mildred Pierce (1941). Vintage, 1989.

City of God. Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, featuring Alexandre Rodrigues and Leandro Filmino da Hora. Miramax, 2002.

The Dark Knight. Directed by Christopher Nolan, featuring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. Warner Bros, 2008.

The Departed. Directed by Martin Scorsese, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicolson. Warner Bros., 2006.

Double Indemnity. Directed by Billy Wilder, featuring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. Paramount, 1944.

Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. Vintage, 1991.

The Fugitive. Directed by Andrew Davis, featuring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. Warner Bros., 1993.

Gangs of New York. Directed by Martin Scorsese, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis. Miramax, 2002.

The Godfather. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, featuring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Paramount, 1972.

Goodfellas. Directed by Martin Scorsese, featuring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. Warner Bros., 1990.

Heat. Directed by Michael Mann, featuring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Warner Bros., 1995.

Inception. Directed by Christopher Nolan, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Caine. Legendary, 2010.

Inside Man. Directed by Spike Lee, featuring Denzel Washington and Clive Owen. Imagine/40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 2006.

The Ladykillers. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, featuring Tom Hanks and Irma P. Hall. Touchstone, 2004.

Memento. Directed by Christopher Nolan, featuring Guy Pierce and Joe Pantoliano. Summit, 2000.

Ocean’s 11. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, featuring George Clooney and Matt Damon. Village Roadshow, 2001.

Reservoir Dogs. Directed by Quentin Tarantino, featuring Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth. Miramax, 1992.

Rififi. Directed by Jules Dassin, featuring Jean Servais and Robert Hossein. Pathe, 1955.

The Silence of the Lambs. Directed by Jonathan Demme, featuring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Orion, 1991.

Snatch. Directed by Guy Ritchie, featuring Brad Pitt and Jason Statham. SKA Films, 2000.

Created By
Brandon Coon


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