The key to writing a solid murder mystery outline

canstockphoto5370784Writing a mystery is fun, but tricky. It takes some planning. Think about it. When a real criminal rushes into murder, he ends up getting caught. A mystery novel’s equivalent to getting is caught is the reader figuring out whodunit before the sleuth. And when that happens, it’s not just the victim that winds up dead – so does your book.

So how do you keep your book out of the morgue? It takes thorough planning. (a.k.a. The Outline)

I don’t know how some authors “wing it” and I don’t know any successful mystery author who ties all the ends together without first outlining the plot.  My murder mysteries follow a six part outline that begins with the murder. Even if the death takes place outside the story itself, it’s still the act that sets the story in motion.

The outline doesn’t have to delve deep into all the little details. Those can be worked out later. It does, though, include the suspects and motivations. It lays out every major scene and the genuine, fake and pivotal clues. Without this direction, I’ll get lost when I begin writing and go off on tangents and into dead ends.

However, you know that in any good murder mystery, nothing is as it appears.

So, here’s the key: There’s another, deeper outline that plots the off-the-page action. It’s the real story beneath the surface. It describes what the murderer is doing to cover-up his crime, misdirect the sleuth and every little deceptive lie. This deeper outline will help line-up clue placement within the story so they aren’t just dropped into the story but methodically placed.

Want more info? Check out:

Shhhhh… There’s a formula to writing a murder mystery

canstockphoto18465293Have you ever read one of those novels that just keeps going on and on? Have you ever stopped reading at Chapter 7 and asked, “What’s the point here?” Or when writing, have you ever felt lost? Not sure what should happen next? Well, using a formula helps keep mysteries on track.

Formula might sound like “cookie cutter writing” but it’s not. It’s about meeting reader expectations of the genre. If you’re reading a romance, you expect the boy to meet the girl, the boy to lose the girl, then the boy gets the girl back. In mystery-suspense, readers expect the sleuth to investigate the murder, the sleuth hits a wall, then the sleuth overcomes and solves the murder. The formula simply charts the emotional high points to keep the story moving forward within the genre’s expectations.

The basic mystery formula is:

  1. canstockphoto3001696 A murder is committed and a body is found

There simply must be a corpse in a murder mystery. Whether you’re writing a cozy or gritty noir, no lesser crime than murder will do. In my world, the story generally starts with the victim meeting his fate. But it doesn’t have to. The murder can already have occurred before page one, and the story starts with the discovery and investigation.

 I believe this to be the most important part of the story. The murder and discovery must be engaging enough to get the reader to turn the page. If the reader doesn’t care, it really doesn’t matter how impressive the investigation is or how dramatic the Big Reveal turns out to be.


  1. canstockphoto0890392Suspects are identified

Personally I like to have four suspects — one has a motive, the second has the means, and the third had the opportunity to commit the murder on that fateful night. Of course, the fourth — the actual murderer — had motive, means and opportunity.

To me, creating Suspects One, Two and Three is the fun part. I love developing odd characters that inhabited the victim’s life. They have their own secrets to hide. They may lie to the sleuth and mislead the reader. But don’t take offense; that’s their job.

  1. canstockphoto0602994Clues are found

To play fair, consider planting at least three genuine clues within the narrative that point to the true murderer. The sleuth may not recognize them or understand their relevance until later. The reader may never notice them until the end. They can be subtle. And, obviously, you want several red herrings (or fake clues) that point fingers at Suspects One, Two and Three.

  1. The Sleuth identifies one of the suspects as the killer

canstockphoto0602986At first, Suspect One, Two or Three appears very, very guilty. The Sleuth knows it. The reader feels it. Now at this point, the sleuth is trying to prove how and why. The case is all but wrapped up, except that…

  1.  The Sleuth discovers that everything she thought is wrong

The Killer is not who she first suspected. And she finds that she was blindsided by a red herring. The blindside can be almost anything, for example the true motive for murder. Maybe the sleuth has focused on financial gain (the canstockphoto0357403life insurance policy) but the real motive is revenge (the victim cheated on a third grade spelling bee). Or a crime of passion.  Or self defense. Or an act of jealousy.

  1. Everything seems lost. The Sleuth is discredited. The Killer is going to get away with murder

Everything is progressing just as the murderer planned. (Wha ha ha!) Whether professional or amateur, every sleuth must hit rock bottom. Bring your sleuth to the breaking point, about to lose everything, and then push her down a deep, black hole that, to your reader, appears there is no canstockphoto0357545way out.

  1. A breakthrough arrives just before all is lost

But the sleuth does make her way out of that hole, and she is stronger and more motivated than ever before. The solution doesn’t come easy, but there is a breakthrough. Maybe she missed something before. Maybe she looks at the clues differently. Maybe a lie is revealed. Maybe someone turns up who sends the story in a completely new direction. Somehow, the pieces add up, which leads to:

  1. canstockphoto11032822The Murderer is revealed.

This is the BIG REVEAL SCENE, in which the sleuth unmasks the murderer and explains his motive, means, and opportunity. The reveal is the second most important scene in a mystery novel and it has dual goals. The first is to explain every genuine clue and to expose the murderer’s identity. The second is more important: it must be climatic, dramatic and satisfying. Your ending must be memorable. This is why your reader stuck with you for all those pages. Don’t strike out here. It can taint the reader’s feelings of the entire story.

So don’t look at a formula as “writing by the numbers.” It more like a jello mold, waiting for your to pour all your creative juices into and create something exciting, fun and entertaining — while still reading and feeling like a murder mystery.

Images used with permission per the licensing agreement with CSP3001696, CSP0890392, CSP0602994, CSP0602986, CSP0357590, CSP0357545, CSP0357403, CSP11032822

Violence escalates between debating writer factions

Stillwater, Florida (AP) – The murder of Janice DeStoppalace put police detectives on high alert last week. Discovery of her body was worse than anyone expected, especially since the victim led such a quiet life. She was a receptionist at a downtown insurance agency. She was a loving mother and wife who wrote amateur detective novels in her spare time. Now she’s the face of a hate crime that is growing in intensity.

The fervor is raging across the country: at writer’s conferences, book fairs, local critique groups, even between couples who are both writers.
Friends and family are saying that Janice DeStoppalace, 34, lived openly about her beliefs.

“I like to pick out the villain when I get to the end of writing my mystery novels,” said DeStoppalace at an Amateur Mystery Writer’s Meet-Up Group she attended on the night of her murder. “I let the characters decide who did the dastardly dead and why.” Those were her last words. She was murdered in her home by a gang of Outliners who held a rally in a neighboring residence on the same evening.

“I’m not saying that the murder of Janice DeStoppalace was right,” said Andrea Ferngroves, 61, a representative of the D.O.R.I. organization (Detailed Outlines ‘R’ Imperative).  “But I find it a little disturbing that people like her can just start writing a story without any clear direction where it’s headed. You must first outline, then start the initial draft. That’s just the way it’s done in a civilized society.”
old couple
News of DeStoppalace’s murder has had a profound impact on her friends and neighbors.

“This is definitely a problem that we’re struggling to get past,” said Angela Whiddle, 42, a wife and mother. “I’m just like that poor, innocent woman. I’m a wife, a mother and write in my spare time. And I too just start writing on the first page and let the story flow where it wants.”

“But it’s put a strain on our marriage,” said her husband, Barry Whiddle, 44, a novelist who is adamant that an outline must be written first. “How does your story have direction? How do you keep the characters from running off on tangents without an outline to follow?”

A fellow writer who knew DeStoppalace and frequently attended the same Amateur Mystery Writing group attempted to explain. “I find an outline too restrictive. It limits my creative muse.”

However, there are many who oppose that viewpoint.

“You know that big reveal at the end of my mystery novels? I planned that out 300 pages earlier,” said Barry Whiddle. “It’s hard to imagine all that falling in place on its own or developing within the natural flow of the story.”

“We will never agree on outlines, but we don’t want to end-up in a situation like that poor woman who was murdered,” his wife Angela added. “A mixed marriage is tough. I’m not saying it isn’t. So, we’re currently working through our issues with professional help.”
Married Couple
DeStoppalace’s mother, Alice, spoke publicly for the first time after her daughter’s tragic death.

“I’ve always heard that there are two kinds of novelists: those who free-flow and those who outline,” she said in a statement released through the family attorney.

According to the attorney, “Free-Flowing” is a street term that describes a process where writers begin a story without any type of prepared outline. The story reveals itself as it’s being written. “Outliners” determine the major plot points, the narrative structure, and the ending before they begin writing.

“Isn’t this world big enough for both free-flowing and outlines?” Alice DeStoppalace pleaded in her public statement. “Obviously, there is no right or wrong way to write. And, I’m going to guess that a lot of people fall somewhere in the middle; they start with an outline but tend to veer off it once they delve into the writing process.”

Memorial services are currently scheduled for Janice DeStoppalace, but per her final wishes, no initial preparation has been made.

Couple in bed
All names are fictitious and no resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is intended. Photos are from and used with permission per the licensing agreement. Hopefully the members of my writers group don’t kill me for making fun of this week’s (and previous week’s) discussion.