10 tips for writing a murder mystery

I often hear fans of murder mysteries say, “I’d like to write one someday.” So, here are some tips that I have. These are not rules. I am not in any position to make rules for anything. These are just some beliefs I have.

1. Write off the page. More than any other genre, mysteries depend on activity done separately from the narrative proper. Think about it.

A. While the murder happens, all the suspects are doing various things that must be detailed/hidden. All the alibis/false alibis happen off the page.

B. The murderers plotting happens well before the story begins.

C. Speaking of the murder—it’s the most important event and the reader only witnesses the result.

You must write all that stuff in detail, otherwise you’re going to get caught in narrative traps. Oh wait, he couldn’t have been there because he has to be driving his sister to the party. Think of it as two stories. One you share, and one you only reference from time to time.

Somewhere on my laptop, there is a scene of what takes place in Robert Lasciva’s office and a dialogue between Charles and Margaret up in their room. They are grammatical nightmares, but they exist. Make a map and track movement. You’ll discover lots of possibilities for false reader inference, and you’ll save yourself a whole lot of headaches.

2. Give every character a secret. If the killer is the only character with something to hide, you got a shitty mystery on your hands. Infidelity, bad spending habits, illness—everybody should have something to hide, and they should fight to keep it hidden. If the secret isn’t strong enough, make it important to that specific character. The reader will attach murderous intention to each lie and end up confused and intrigued. Which leads me to…

3. Develop your red herrings. Imagine this, you begin outlining the killer. She’s got a great backstory, a twisted plan, and an obfuscating facade of civility. Then, you’ve got…suspects. But you don’t feel like developing those people much. After all, they’re only there for distraction. You give each one a few traits and a lame false motive. Now you’re writing dialogue for stick figures.

They must be developed as if they are the key to the mystery kingdom. This is something I need to work on.

4. Work backward (backwards for you Brits). Start with the crime and go back to its planning stages. Then, start again with the revelation and go back to see how the detective cracks it. This will do wonders for your plotting. There are some pantser mystery writers out there who start at the beginning and figure things as they go along. They are freaks. Don’t talk to them.

5. Figure out the relationship between reader and detective. This is tougher than it sounds. If you go 1st person, you can’t do it through the detective’s eyes otherwise you’ll know the solution the moment he/she knows it. The purest 1st person form is the Van Dine/ Philo Vance relationship. Van Dine has no thoughts. He is a complete nothing, only meant to observe Vance nod and say ‘hmm-hmm’ while looking over evidence. Some Watsons add more to the narrative, but they are never as smart as the detective. 3rd person offers more in the way of entering the detective’s head, but at some point you will have to lock the audience out. Pick that point, which leads us to…

5b. You have to wait until the last possible moment to stop seeing what the detective sees. Everyone hates it when a detective looks at a photo (or document or evidence, whatever) and says, “Oh, my God!”, and we don’t get to see it too. It’s cheap. However, we only feel this way when it’s done too early. If it happens near the end, we tend to be more accepting. We know the deal. The book has played fair for long enough, and we should have already seen enough of the evidence. Usually, there is narration like, “The detective told him what had been brewing in his mind.” His superintendent responds, ‘Good, God. That’s impossible.’ And so on and so on. You had better have a good spot to put this. If it’s in the middle of the book, you’re in deep shit.

And when I say last minute, I mean last minute. In The Opening Night Murders, I originally didn’t show what Mrs. Ber was pointing at during the last moments of chapter 13. Soon, I realized it was still too early to be pulling that kind of stuff. I was cheating the reader. So I asked myself, “What would happen if I revealed it?” It deepened the mystery when I showed what she was pointing at.

If you are hiding something from the reader, ask yourself the same question. If revealing the evidence means the game is up, you have to move it closer to the end.

6. It’s awesome if the “of course” clue is buried within a red herring clue.

Offhand is the word I think of the most. Pick a John Dickson Carr novel at random and highlight the relevant clues. Nine times out of 10, it’s surrounded by bullshit.

7. Always keep the reader in mind. Every clue you introduce will have an effect on the reader. Think about that reader. How will she react? What conclusions will she jump to? Is there a chance she’s smarter than you are? I always write for fans of the genre. I think about what they’ve read before and what they expect. Then, I do my utmost to confound those expectations.

8. Although your goal is to trick them, you must play fair with readers. It’s difficult, but the clues must exist on the page. However, you may rest easy knowing they must not only deduce the killer, but deduce how and why. Anytime a reader has said, “I guessed the killer.”, I always ask “How?” If they just picked a character and they don’t know why, they can go fuck themselves. It’s not enough. Fair play goes both ways.

9. Do the opposite and give it a good reason. The killer in The Skeleton in the Clock is one of the most cheerful characters in the book. He’s really thrilled about the mayhem he’s planning. Even the most hardened mystery reader will surrender some watchfulness as he gets caught up in the narrative. Yes, he’s on the lookout for the killer, but he’s also following the story. Reverse the expectation whenever you can. If you’ve read The Opening Night Murders, look at how I presented the sisters. Their dialogue seems to go against their respective personalities. At the core, however, their words are perfectly aligned with their desires.

10. Play with light and dark. Serious/ridiculous. Scary/funny. Deadly/playful. These are the contrasting elements of murder mysteries. You can push further in one direction, but you have to have some of both. They’re meant to be fun, but if the threat isn’t there, it won’t work.

1 thought on “10 tips for writing a murder mystery”

  1. Anytime a reader has said, “I guessed the killer.”, I always ask “How?” If they just picked a character and they don’t know why, they can go fuck themselves

    Oooh, this gave me a good ol’ chuckle. Equally, having an author lay insufficient cause for the detective to actually detect the killer and so having them do something very out of character — return to the scene of the crime to hunt for a tell-tale gewgaw they dropped, or suddenly start raving and frothing at the mouth as they go on a wild murder rampage — so that it’s made obvious to everyone else who the guilty party is frustrates the living hell outta me.

    Like. how can someone plot a book requiring the discovery of a murderer, say, and not know how that discovery will be reached? Well, they can, obviously, but that does feel rather like writing a song without knowing the bridge to the chorus and so just hoping the whole band is able to busk it appropriately when it comes to recording.


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