How To Craft a Murder Mystery Story
‘Ah, but my dear sir, the why must never be obvious. That is the whole point.’ – Agatha Christie
A satisfying murder mystery tale is one that’s well-crafted. There’s nothing quite like it, is there? The high stakes, the building tension, the way the author lures you into rooting for the detective, it truly takes immense skill and attention to craft.
What are the things you should consider while crafting a murder mystery story? Let’s get straight into it!
Part 1: Plotting the story
This is when you concern yourself with getting the story straight. These are the steps before the actual writing begins.
Plot the story backwards
You’ve decided who the killer is? Great! But are you sure about how things get there?
It’s at this point you work towards tightening the plot.
The essence of a murder mystery story is that everything should make sense in the end. There can be no loose ends, and no questions can be left unanswered. A strategy to avert this is to work backwards. Think carefully about how things got to the moment of the big reveal. Obviously, you don’t get to spell it out in a linear fashion, but it all has to be in your head.
You can do this in a few layers:
- Once you know who the killer is going to be, start thinking about how they committed the crime and what their motivations might have been.
- Then, think about their alibi, who they may have confided in, and how they go about hiding their crime.
- Introduce detectives, police, or investigators in the mix. To make the plot more believable, put yourself in their shoes and start thinking about how you would carry out the investigation. Think about loopholes and missing links that the killer has left. These clues will help you chart the investigator’s path.
Pro-tip: Bear in mind, if you’re doing this on your own, that you may come to convenient solutions because you know the end already. It’s a good idea to run your story by someone, friend or fellow writer, to see if it makes sense logically.
Think about where you’re leaving bread crumbs
By ‘bread crumbs’ we mean clues, of course.
When a reader gets to the end of the story, they’re not thrown new information. Instead, they reexamine existing information—little hints they hadn’t previously considered—to make sense of what’s happened. What you’re looking to evoke here is an epiphany, not a reveal.
In other words, clues should be hiding in plain sight. You can do this through two techniques: foreshadowing and misdirection. What are these?
Foreshadowing is a literary device which is used to hint at significant events or moments that comes later in the story. Subtlety is of utmost importance here, and your readers should be curious to unravel its significance.
Readers are often unsatisfied if something is revealed abruptly, so foreshadowing is your safeguard against a random twist. Once the twist happens, and the reader tries to find out how it happened, they should land on whatever you’ve hinted. Foreshadowing should be subtle but logical, and overtly obvious in hindsight.
Misdirection is the act of diverting your reader’s attention from an important clue. In magic, misdirection was often used as a technique of deception to keep the audience’s attention elsewhere so that the trick is carried out successfully.
Likewise, in fiction, writers often use this technique to distract readers from elements that will later gain importance in the narrative. This may happen through the narration or through ‘misguided’ deductions of a character. (The latter, for example, often happens in Holmes stories, where you’re seeing the world through Dr Watson’s eyes.) Logically speaking, if this character comes to an erroneous conclusion, so will the reader. Instead, drop hints that readers refer to later that are external to what the character is saying or seeing.
Part 2: Writing the story
This is when you develop and write your story.
Begin with action
What you need here is a killer hook. (Sorry, just couldn’t resist!)
Murder mystery is a genre that’s all about action. So it’s advised that you start with an action-packed incident, rather than a description of the setting or a philosophical pondering about the nature of things,. Ensure that this event is intriguing, and a reader is compelled to find out what happened, how things came to be. An obvious type of incident is the discovery of a body.
Build tension in every scene
The conflict of the killer and the investigator is at the core of a murder mystery story. Even if the two parties don’t actually meet for the majority of the story, the reader should sense the tension of the cat-and-mouse-chase tension between them. You can do this by having the detective miss clues that you, the reader, are already exposed to, or through instances where the killer is almost caught but manages to slip away.
Every character should have a rich backstory
In order to make the characters realistic, they should be more than simply stock characters who exist to perform specific actions in your book. The danger with a murder mystery is that a high focus on the plot may lead you to put characters in the backseat. But in fact, characters are tremendously useful in fleshing out the details of the whole story. For instance, if you have witness interrogations in your story, you can use various characters’ alibis to give multiple perspectives of the same event, situation, or even suspect.
Some general tips
- Read, read, read. Read as much as you can: to familiarize yourself with the genre, to understand (through analysis) how a murder mystery is crafted, and to gain a sense of how such a tale is written.
- Don’t defy basic laws of science (especially medicine), the exception being if it directly makes sense to your plot. Readers can recognize a lapse in logic, and it takes away from the realism.
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