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.

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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.

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Is your mystery novel playing fair?

canstockphoto4265867One of the best parts of a mystery novel is its interactive feeling. Readers attempt to solve the puzzle alongside the sleuth. So, as authors, we must play fair and provide the reader with genuine clues. But what exactly does “playing fair” mean?

For starters, it means providing genuine clues that point a finger at the true murderer. Those clues reveal the murder’s motive, means and opportunity, and are strategically inserted within the plot. They can be subtle. They can be overshadowed by red herrings. They can be shuffled within meaningless information. But, they must be present. And when the murderer’s identity is finally reveled, the reader must be saying, “Of course!” The reader must feel that if she had picked up on that discarded scarf left at the crime scene, she too would have solved the mystery like your sleuth.

That’s playing fair. What’s not fair though is an absence of genuine clues and a big reveal that relies on a gimmick. In other words, when the mystery is finally solved at the end of the book, the concealment can’t be from:

An improbable disguise — I read a book back in the 1980’s where the murderer was pretending to be another character, and had adopted a wig, fake beard and mustache to impersonate that character. The sleuth was interacting with him all throughout the story, then in the big reveal — BOOM! — the beard and mustache come off and the deception was revealed. I was so angry. Not only was it stupid and unbelievable, but a really big cheat.

An implausible twist – All clues point to the kind and gentle town minister, but there’s just no way that he could be the murderer because, you know, he’s so kind and gentle. Still, there’s three witnesses that put him at the scene of the crime. Another witness remembers seeing him act all suspicious, tossing the murder weapon over the side of Old Man Johnson’s Bridge. But in the end, low and behold, we discover the kind and gentle minister really is innocent because he has an evil twin that no one knew existed. I think this might have been shocking and considered an acceptable twist back in the late 1800’s, but today it’s kind of lame. (Although an episode of Supernatural pulled it off pretty well…)

Coincidences and accidental solutions – The hands of fate can intervene to force your sleuth into solving the mystery. Those hands can bring two lovers together. They can reunite old friends and ex-fiancees, but they can not, under any circumstances, provide the opportunity for your sleuth to solve the murder. I read a story in my critique group where, in the last chapter, the sleuth can’t sleep and decides to take a walk. During that late night jaunt, he just happens to hear a woman screaming for help and runs to investigate. He arrives just in time to see his Number One Suspect attacking another woman, leaps into action and thwarts another murder. No. No. No. No. No. No.

Supernatural solutions — In a traditional murder mystery, the Sleuth can’t solve the murder by Divine Intervention or by calling upon the dark forces of Elzabad. He still has to figure out the Whodunit by putting the clues together. And, all those genuine clues still have to add up to motive, means and opportunity. That doesn’t mean there can’t be elements of the supernatural in your story, especially if it crosses into the spirituality or horror genres. Those genre-defining elements can lead to clues, help explain the meaning behind clues, and even lead up to the big confrontation. They just can’t take the place of strategically inserted genuine clues that point to the murderer’s true identity.

The Sleuth’s multiple personality disorder — The Sleuth investigating the murder should not — SURPRISE! SURPRISE! — turn out to have committed the murder. This is a tired twist that most reader’s (and movie goers) can smell coming before the end of the first act. I’m sure it will come back around as fresh again, some day in the distant future. Today though, in a true murder mystery, give your sleuth a good mystery to solve and a Big Bad who gets his comeuppance. And, while we’re at it, main characters who turn out to be ghosts is a little worn for wear too.

In the end, the murderer must be determined by logical deductions — not by gimmicks. You could say a murder mystery is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase. But when the solution is found by a gimmick, it’s the same as telling the reader, “Ha Ha! You lost! I actually had the answer up my sleeve the whole time!”

The whodunit must be solved by strictly naturalistic means with several genuine clues, giving the reader a chance to match wits with a rationalistic detective

Get a Clue: Three types of clues hidden in your mystery novel

canstockphoto13914461The whole point of a murder mystery is picking up on the clues and solving the whodunit. But, did you know that mysteries have three types of clues hidden within their pages?

“Genuine clues” point to the killer and help the sleuth solve the crime. They’re often subtle. The sleuth noticed that the gym teacher was wearing a brown necktie before the Principal was found dead, and now he’s wearing a blue one. A good rule of thumb is to plant three genuine clues in your murder mystery to give your sleuth (and your reader) a good chance of figuring it out. And, for your sleuth to have an airtight case against the killer, one clue should show motive, one proves means and the third proves opportunity. 

“Fake clues” point to viable suspects, but who ultimately prove innocent of the murder. You’ll often hear these called “red herrings” and they serve to distract the reader (and sometimes the detective). These clues are often very loud and blatant. The History Professor announces to everyone in the gymnasium that he will get even with the Principal, if it’s the last thing he ever does. Then an hour later, the Principal turns up dead. You can have several red herrings in your mystery, but make sure they lead somewhere. Red Herrings can easily turn into subplots. If they aren’t resolved, they’ll feel like loose ends.


The “Pivotal clue” is the key element that directs the story to the solution—it’s the final piece of the puzzle and, ultimately, allows the sleuth (and the reader) to solve the crime. This clue generally shows up at the end of the middle segment, and leads the characters to a Big Show Down with the Big Bad. This clue can be many things – a lie is uncovered, a truth is revealed, another character returns, evidence at the crime scene that suddenly make sense – and it’s generally dramatic. One of my favorite Pivotal Clues is about what’s missing from the crime scene and should be there. Those are often tough to detect, but seem very obvious when revealed. In a lot of mysteries, the significance of the “Pivotal Clue” is understood but not explained by the sleuth. Ultimately though, it leads him or her to confront the murderer, where the identity is finally revealed.

All three types of clues are essential to a good mystery. It’s the reader’s job to spot them and decode them; it’s the author’s job to inject them into the story in a way that keeps the reader guessing.

Suspicious Behavior

canstockphoto1131704A big part of hiding the murderer in your mystery novel is to distract the reader with another character who displays blatantly suspicious behavior. On the surface, this suspicious character appears to be the murderer. He’s clearly hiding a secret — it’s just not THE secret. And his actions confuse the sleuth and the reader alike, leading them down the wrong path and away from the true murderer.

Here are a few ideas for suspicious behavior. Why would a suspect in your mystery do one of these actions and how would it impact the investigation?

  • Alter appearance of crime scene
  • Alter his or her identity
  • Attempt to flee
  • Destroy evidence
  • Lie to discredit another
  • Lie about an alibi
  • Frame another
  • Get rid of the body
  • Get rid of the murder weapon
  • Go into hiding
  • Remove prints from the scene
  • Start a fire to cover another crime
  • Tamper with evidence
  • Threaten a witness