Murder mysteries for dummies
February 17, 2022 at 1:52 pm #148036
Greetings writerly companions!
As you could cleverly deduce from the title, I’m looking for advice on the basics of the noble craft of the whodunnit.
Out of the blue, I had a concept for a mystery novel, which may or may not be induced by my recently heightened consumption of Agatha Christie novels.
The problem is that I am very much the titular dummy. Though my current project has threads of mystery, it was never a pure whodunnit with a detective and a murder.
The concept has been a blast so far. Though I’ve only been working on it for the grand total of three days, I have a main character (the Watson character) a detective, and a concept for the crimes. (Yes, plural)
(For those of you who are informed on my recent scrivenings and know that I not only have a whole trilogy to revise but also another project that is half-plotted and begging to be finished: I know. Stop judging me, I’m following the inspiration and won’t end up writing it for quite a while XD)
My main issue is that I have truly not the foggiest idea of how to plot it.
The setting: A boarding school/ college in a vaguely contemporary setting.
The crimes: A series of murders and injuries that seem alarmingly close to following the plot of a ballet that is being rehearsed.
The concept is vaguely similar to “And then there were none” though the predicted series of murders is in fact the only thing it shares. The motive, characters, setting, POV, ending, and mood are very different.
My main issue is that I have no idea how to set up the mystery, put out the trail of clues, determine a motive for the murder, write the deduction process, in short, everything that makes a mystery a mystery is a mystery to me. (Followed that? Good.)
Any resources, suggestions, and feedback are highly appreciated!
I don’t know anyone who definitely writes mysteries so here I go randomly tagging a handful of people XD
@anyone and everyone
Without darkness, there is no light. If there was no nighttime, would the stars be as bright?February 17, 2022 at 3:09 pm #148038Joelle Stone@joelle-stone
Mm, good question, Rose! The only advice I can offer is to check out Abbie Emmons and Kingdom Pen and Story Embers and all their advice on mysteries. If you’re trying to plot, try reverse plotting (yes yes, I know you’ve heard me rant about it before XD) or going for a three-act story structure – or check out the SE resource library!! You never know what you’re going to find there. 😉 Best of luck!February 17, 2022 at 3:19 pm #148039
Thanks Joelle! I’ll absolutely go check it out! I have a lot of research to do XD
Also, I love your quote XD
Without darkness, there is no light. If there was no nighttime, would the stars be as bright?February 17, 2022 at 7:44 pm #148046Joelle Stone@joelle-stone
Sure thing, Rose!! (Hehe, ’tis pretty accurate. :P)February 17, 2022 at 11:52 pm #148056
I have been wanting to respond all day, but it has been so busy at work.
I agree with Joelle. You have to reverse-plot a mystery. Determine what will happen and be revealed at the end and then work backward.
You need to determine the main motivation for your villain. What would drive them to commit a homicide?
There are the usual reasons:
1. Money by profession – Are they a hired killer?
2. Power (obsession) – oftentimes a sexual assault that leads to homicide falls under this.
3. Revenge or retaliation – This one can get tricky because there are layers to this. Perhaps, the villain was molested, humiliated, injured, or something was stolen from them.
4. Drug or alcohol induced – narcotics can play a role in the killings
5. Crime of passion – The deed could be provoked by the moment.
6. Mistaken identity or accidental – The death could be accidental and then covered up.
7. Sociopath or Psychopath (Occult driven or occult ritual) – The symptoms of a paranoia, or a skewed perception, or spiritually driven hatred could provide the motive.
8. To hide a secret (either personal or to protect someone else from loss or humiliation).
These are just a few to get you to thinking.
Then you need to prepare a criminal profile from the crime scene evidence.
· Who are the victims (women or men, young or old, affluent or poor, sexual deviant or not)? Are they targeted specifically, or are the targets varied?
· What type (organized or disorganized) of killer is involved? Is the killer:
o Comfort oriented
o Lust motivated
o Thrill motivated
o Power/control oriented?
· What was the cause of death?
· What kind of deviant sexual behavior is evident?
· What are the unusuals?
· When did the crime occur (time of day, time of month, time of year)?
· Did the crime occur on or near a particularly significant event or date?
· Did the crime occur on a religious-related date or occult-related date?
· Is there anything special or unusual about when the crime was committed?
· Where did the crime occur?
· Where was the body or victim (if still alive) found?
· Was the victim abducted from another place, and if so, where did the abduction occur?
· How was the crime committed?
· Was the crime method specific, or does the method vary?
· Was there anything unusual about the methods?
· Does the crime appear to be sexual in nature?
· Does the crime appear to be profit-motivated?
· Does the crime appear to be spontaneous?
· Does the crime appear to be planned?
Does this help?
- This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by Brian Stansell.
Brian Stansell (aka O'Brian of the Surface World)
I was born in war.
Fighting from my first breath.February 18, 2022 at 3:39 am #148063
Does this help?
A whole lot! Thank you so much, Brian! That’s exactly the kind of overview I needed!
I already know who the murderer is and I have a faint idea of their motivation, but this will really help me work it out! Thank you so much!
Without darkness, there is no light. If there was no nighttime, would the stars be as bright?February 18, 2022 at 11:24 am #148066
I am very glad to have helped. Your insights have helped me many times, so I am pleased to return the favor.
Another thing I would mention is to layer misdirection or false trails within the story. Sometimes these are called “red herrings” in the writer’s guides.
Have several characters have reasonable motives for wanting to off the victims. Some may not have the time or opportunity, but don’t let it become too obvious who the real killer is, nor should you make the real killer seem too innocent which can raise suspicion. Only a true psychopath can maintain a sense of normalcy when hiding their crime, so you should layer in some other factor that might reasonably explain them seeming to be a little off or protective.
One murder mystery I read had the main character assume the perp was away in one place rather than being present at the time of the murder, so you might find a way to hide their proximity or even put so many others in the time and location that they blend in with the other suspects.
Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” puts the desired object (the scandalous letter) in plain view of the searchers so that the assumptions made would misdirect them and cause them to discredit the obvious object being the very thing they are looking for. EAP is considered “the father of the detective story” and for brilliant concepts like this. This can be done with the villain as well.
Some might seem to have an airtight alibi or no clear motive, or perhaps, a motive that seems to be the opposite of the result. The movie “The Bodyguard” with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner does this. The shocking reveal (spoiler alert) is that her sister is the instigator. Only at the end is her motive of envy and hidden resentment made clear.
Also, think about what the killer might plant at the scene or unwittingly lose at the crime scene that may point to many potential suspects.
As to whether or not the victim’s body was moved and left where it was found, look into the physical effects of “fixed lividity”. When a person’s heart stops beating, their blood ceases to circulate through their body, and eventually, gravity pulls it to the lowest level of the body so that it appears darker against the skin or purplish. The uppermost or highest part of the body will be the palest or grayish depending on how long the body lay at the actual scene of the homicide.
Set a timeline for the commission of the crime, with this factor in mind. Also, determine the physicality of your perp and the logistics of how or why they might move the body. This physicality could factor in who the reasonable suspects might be, so if your villain is a small, petite female, you may consider they had an accomplice or some means of transporting their victim that might not be obvious.
Also, consider the psychology of the villain willing to do, what may be termed “proximal wet work” (a hands-on killing).
Brian Stansell (aka O'Brian of the Surface World)
I was born in war.
Fighting from my first breath.February 18, 2022 at 2:40 pm #148072
Here’s just a little something I wrote which shows some misdirection:
Rathburn did not know what he was in for. We had found strategic positions and lay in wait for him. There was not a lot of cover, so we had to find safe positions behind the austerely furnished room. Getting access had taken months of planning. Rathburn often worked late nights from this place. He found the muted evening lights of the city soothing from the 46th floor. The day businesses in the surrounding buildings had long since darkened their office floors. The digital read 11:40 pm. Only janitorial staff prowled at this late hour and systematically turned the lights out as they worked from the top floors downward. The evening weather had been overcast. A light rain had wet the large glass windows, giving a shadowed peppering to the dark walls still partially illumined by the waning city glow below. Darkness shrouded us, for we knew it would be dangerous to our objective if he spotted us too soon. We each had a line of sight to the door through which we knew he was bound to enter. I sighted down the lens and trained the crosshairs right about the five and a half foot mark so I would be sure to get a headshot. I smiled to myself as I anticipated the stunned look that would pass across his face as he entered. Three or four of the others might get in a profile target point, but I believe that mine would be the money shot.
At a quarter till the handle of the conference room door clicked as a key was turned in the lock. The door swung inward. A man stood silhouetted in the doorframe, bathed red under the hall exit light. Half a second later, from outside of the building windows, the conference room strobed with muted flashes of light. I was right. Mine had been the money shot.
Rathburn had been stunned and had taken several shots before we all revealed our purpose, by shouting, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Rathburn!”
To which he replied, “You’re all fired.” But then he grinned. The man was prescient, always seeming to know everything that went on in his company from the lowest level clerk to the top VP. He rarely registered surprise in all the years I’d known him. But he did in this photo. The money shot image on my camera’s digital screen had been of a man genuinely caught off guard.
Brian Stansell (aka O'Brian of the Surface World)
I was born in war.
Fighting from my first breath.February 20, 2022 at 5:20 am #148103
Thank you so much for that advice! I’ll look into those things, it helps a lot! I’m really excited to keep working on it! 🙂
Without darkness, there is no light. If there was no nighttime, would the stars be as bright?March 15, 2023 at 5:31 pm #156982BookDragon@bookdragon
Hello! I don’t know if you’re still looking for input, but here is what I have found most helpful:
Mysteries tend to be very structured, especially when looking at episodic mysteries. Someone (I forget who) broke it down into 5 elements that most mysteries have. (1) Someone finds the body. When I write, this is the first act, and it’s usually the shortest act of the story. (2) Evidence is discovered. This includes anything that you normally think of when talking murder. It lasts a while and is often tedious because you have to write out all the logistics of how the victim bit it. In your case, writing a book, this will likely look like chapters of people finding stuff. (3) The plot thickens. New evidence is introduced that dismantles (or at least rumples) the best theory of the investigator. In your case, this might happen more than once. (4) The plot thickens more. Basically the same deal as 3. (5) The case is solved. I find it the most satisfying to have my killers break and confess.
Following this structure has made it easier for me to weave in character beats and more engaging story elements as I go. If you lean towards outlining, this is honestly the perfect genre. Even if you don’t outline your work now, I recommend that you do it for this project. It will make your life much easier.
I hope that helps!
"In a world full of bookworms, be a book dragon."
- he who made the T-shirtMarch 16, 2023 at 4:48 am #156984
Hey Book Dragon! (Awesome name btw XD)
I am absolutely still looking for advice, it’s always welcome! Thank you so much for it, that makes a lot of sense! Thankfully I am definitely an outliner, so that part comes naturally to me at least XD
Thank you, and nice to meet you!
Without darkness, there is no light. If there was no nighttime, would the stars be as bright?March 19, 2023 at 7:53 pm #157014Abby Jo@ataralasse
So cool you’re writing a mystery! I write mystery games, so my experience is very hands-on; creating a mystery hard enough to be challenging and logical enough the players don’t feel cheated after the reveal. I can say two of the biggest things to know are 1) the answer should not be “whodunit” and 2) the deduction must be calculated.
What I mean by ‘the answer should not be whodunit’ is that the name of the killer isn’t enough of a surprise. Something additional should also be in the twist.
Christie is amazing at this. I can’t say titles, to avoid spoilers, but some of her ‘beyond whodunit’ twists include:
The killer being more than one suspect
The killer being a victim
The killer framing their victim for framing them for murder to get their victim on death row (bit convoluted, sorry XD)
The killer being the most suspicious person (more of a sleight-of-hand)
I make it a point in my mysteries to never just have the answer be, “Mr. X did it.”
“The deduction must be calculated’ means making a table of your suspects and doling out suspicious characteristics. The method takes each of the extenuating elements (Alibi, Motive, Opportunity, Access to the Weapon, Mental Ability, Physical Ability) and creates a hierarchy of suspicion.
Your suspects are (for simplicity’s sake) our beloved Clue characters. We’ll make Miss Scarlet the killer. This means she must check all the boxes: Her alibi can’t be proven; she has a legitimate motive; she had an opportunity to commit the crime; she had access to the weapon at the time; she is physically capable of handling her weapon of choice to kill the victim and has the mental strength/weakness to commit murder.
From here, we move to the suspect we wish to be the second most suspicious…let’s do Colonel Mustard. We’ll have him check all the boxes—except one. Suppose he doesn’t have a legitimate motive.
For our third most suspicious, we’ll take Mr. Green and uncheck two boxes—he didn’t have access to the weapon and he isn’t mentally capable of killing the victim.
So on until you get to the suspect you need to seem the least suspicious. At that point, depending on how many suspects you have, they should only check one or two boxes—or maybe none.
What keeps readers from immediately following the line of deduction is the difficulty in determining some of these things. How do you know if someone has the mental ability to kill? A lot of this is for yourself, a template to build your suspects off.
Hope that wasn’t too complicated!
Read, write, rewrite, repeat. It’s that easy, and it’s that hard.
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