Hiding the Murderer in Your Mystery Novel

canstockphoto5658206A murder mystery is a tightly layered, often complicated plot — but it can’t read that way. The mystery has to unfold scene by scene, leading the reader from suspect to suspect, motive to motive.

So how do you create viable suspects while planting clues to the real murderer throughout the plot?

Obviously, I start with a detailed outline. But, beyond that I personally write in layers. The first layer, Draft One, is the plot at its most simplistic. It features the Victim, the Murderer and the Sleuth. I leave out all other suspects and subplots at this point, and just focus on the story’s core. This is a critical step, as I’m writing the mystery’s foundation. And, it must be solid. The murderer must have motive, means and opportunity. The act of murder must make sense. The Murder’s relationship to the victim is developed. The major clues pointing to the Murderer’s identity are placed. And the Sleuth’s unraveling of the Murderer’s deception is written. Really, there is no mystery at this stage. When this initial draft is completed, it’s pretty obvious who the Murderer is, and there’s a lot of scenes in this draft that won’t make it to the final version. They’re written just for me, the all-seeing, all-knowing author. That’s why no one ever, EVER reads Draft One.

Next, I take Suspect #1 and tell his story. He generally has motive and means, or motive and opportunity. Weaving Suspect #1’s plot into Draft One, I expect the introduction (or focus) on the character to push the story off into a new direction. It has to, as Suspect #1 is a distraction from Murderer. Scenes are rewritten, as they are impacted by the suspicious behavior of Suspect #1. Many of the Murderer’s scenes in Draft 1 are eliminated, as those actions are now happening in the background. Sometimes the best clue is in what’s missing, and not in what’s presented. Finally, once this plot is completely interwoven, I have a completed Draft Two. You’re still not going to read it.

Drafts Three and Four incorporate Suspects #3 and #4, respectively. They generally have secrets to hide, and could have plausibly murdered the Victim. However, a sharp reader will notice that they don’t have a motive, or means, or opportunity. As their plots develop, and the story evolves with these added characters, the over-all mystery deepens, and the true Murderer gets buried within its pages. The murderer is never invisible though; he’s just no longer obvious. And, nope, you still don’t get to read it. So stop asking.

With a Fifth Draft, I add the irrelevant but juicy subplots. These light plots generally focus on character development. This where the romance heats up, the drinking problems surface, and romantic entanglements complicate the character’s lives. I love this stage because this is where I get to shrug off the formulaic structure of the genre and have fun. These subplots create further opportunities to overshadow all those clues to the Murderer just sitting there, waiting to be discovered. And, the more emotional the scenes are, the more delicious the misdirection.

At this point, I let a select few read the manuscript, but it’s far from finished. Though it needs to be scrubbed, the mystery is in place: a murder has been committed, the sleuth enters because the killer, unseen by both the sleuth and the reader, has already been there, and the suspects are in place, all holding up billboards screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!”

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5 thoughts on “Hiding the Murderer in Your Mystery Novel

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