The Peculiar Structure Of Police Procedurals
So Police procedurals are weird ducks. The shows they have most in common with are things like CSI, but they are… different.
First of all, what you’re aiming for with a police procedural is “realism.” Please remember that realism isn’t really real. What I mean is, I’ve known enough policemen to know some amount of their job is “just a job.”
They go to work, they do what they have to do, they patiently gather clues, they file paper. In a big department, they might be working on three or four cases at once. I’m not saying they don’t care about catching murderers or thieves. I’m saying that the best ones do, but it’s still a job. You don’t put your entire life on hold to solve a crime, and it’s not existentially important to you. Let me rephrase that: no more than a good writer puts her life on hold to finish a book, and no more than that is existentially important to her. There are people insanely dedicated to their jobs, but still not like in the books.
Police procedurals make policemen into heroes, (and I don’t mean real policemen aren’t heroic, I mean, heroes like in comic books) and that means the structure and the required beats are much like a super hero story, melded with a mystery.
-often starts with trauma in childhood (or early case) that makes the policeman wounded and vulnerable.
-scenes at the station are interspersed with scenes at home, and none of them has a happy marriage, ever. The atmosphere is “gritty” and pseudo realistic.
-Immediately after the childhood trauma, dream, whatever, you will have the body found. Bodies are more realistic than in cozies, less so than in “For the gore” type of brutalistic mysteries.
After this there’s often a chapter that shows this person’s position in the force is precarious, either because of sex or past mistakes, or just because superior doesn’t like him.
There might or might not be interrogating suspects in between.
There will also be scenes of people bringing information to the detective: forensics, fingerprints, etc.
Because otherwise it would all be in the office and static, procedurals often have the lead investigator actually go out and question people OR work another case at the same time one that for some reason gets him in physical fights. This is not exactly believable, but it is within the universe of the mystery.
The breakthrough will come, as in private investigators’ mysteries through the investigator putting the info together in a new way and seeing the path to the solution.
If there is a love affair with a fellow law officer, it will often end in the woman (if there’s one) being jeopardy.
Oh, and where other mysteries have one other murder along the way, to clarify clues/solution, police procedurals often have two or three.
Most of the ones I read are British. The latest one which is pretty good, starts with the victim, instead, because he’s a shady character, and takes us through his preparing blackmail before cutting to his being found. It’s also told multiple person, so there is no one “detective.” Works very well, actually.
Next week I’ll move on to Fantasy, unless you have questions I need to answer.
In the meantime, if you’re going to write police procedurals and have never been an officer or in a related profession: research. People who read these by preference are PICKY. (I’m not one of them. I read them as well as most other things.) Find out how the police is organized in that particular city and state. If you can get a ride along.
And do not, under any circumstances, call your police department and ask where to hide the body. I knew someone who did.