The murder must always be believable

canstockphoto1131704I just finished reading a mystery novel in which a wife was pushed over the side of a cliff while trying to reconcile with her estranged husband. The husband was the obvious suspect, but in the end it turned out to be her jealous, wheelchair-bound sister who actually committed the crime. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this frustrated me.

The crime must always be believable. If not, the entire story unravels and bags of burning dog poop should be left on the author’s doorstep. And, in this case, the resolution to the mystery borders on criminally ridiculous. How would the jealous, wheelchair-bound sister get up to the mountain cliff in the first place? And even if she could somehow get there, how could she knock her sister over without the estranged husband seeing it? And how did she not leave tire marks behind?

The author was making the least likely character turn-out to be the murderer, and I’ll admit I didn’t guess the ending. But that reveal left a lot of questions on the table. While the motive made sense — jealousy — the means and opportunity aren’t plausible. The physics of the murder don’t make sense.

So, the lesson here is, all the little details of the murder (the how, where, and why) have to come together cohesively. It’s the missing puzzle piece that must fit perfectly to complete the puzzle.  Your reader will feel cheated if the crime is not something that could really happen.

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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.


SuspectEvery suspect is hiding a secret. Let me repeat for emphasis: EVERY SUSPECT IS HIDING A SECRET. It’s just that only one of them is hiding THE secret. The others don’t want your hero uncovering that they’ve stolen family heirlooms, was responsible for the happy couple’s break-up, dealing drugs, burned down the school building, pirating cable TV. Part of the fun of reading a murder mystery is unraveling the sordid lives of the suspect line-up.

So what makes a good suspect?

If ultimately the murderer is proven to have motive, means and opportunity, a viable suspect should have one or two of these attributes, but not all three. The obvious suspect will have “motive.” (She stood up in a crowded theater and announced her vow to make sure that the victim wouldn’t live to see the light of another day just hours before the murder occurred.) The suspect with “means” just happens to own the murder weapon, and the one with “opportunity” was at the wrong place at the wrong time. However, upon investigation, everyone of these attributes point to something else entirely – something that’s probably scandalous and juicy.

So how many suspects should be standing in the line-up?

That can be a little tricky. There’s got to be enough suspects to ensure that the murderer’s identity is a surprise, but not so many that the poor, confused reader can’t keep up. Three is the minimum (see above) but, if the story calls for it, that line-up can stretch to four or five.

Show me a good suspect, and I’ll show you a good liar.

At least one, if not all, should be lying through his teeth. He is feeding the sleuth (and the reader) false information that leads them looking in the wrong direction. Obviously he’s lying to keep a secret hidden, but could also be protecting a reputation or a family member. Protection makes a believable motive for deception. And, when his lie is revealed, it makes a great twist in the book and places this suspect in the spotlight.

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What makes a good murderer?

canstockphoto2807516You know that dramatic reveal at the end of a good mystery where the sleuth explains who committed the murder and why?  **SHOCKER!** The author had all those details worked out well before the first page. A good mystery writer begins the book knowing the murderer’s method, motive and opportunity. And all those elements must logically add up, else readers will be very unforgiving – and very vocal — in reviews.

So when I’m considering a character to commit murder, these are my considerations:

Is this character obvious – or will the identity be too easy for readers to deduce? If so, I know I’m going to have a lot of work to do. The husband, for example,  is naturally Suspect #1 in his wife’s murder – and it’s okay if he turns out to be the one who did it – but there better be a lot of doubt in the reader’s mind.

Is the character physically capable of committing the murder? That doesn’t just mean physically – which he or she must be – but also emotionally. The murder must fit the murderer.

Does the motive make sense and is it believable? Granted, there is a certain allowance for suspension of disbelief in all murder mysteries, but the motive must still carry some weight.  A good mystery is telling two stories: the one on the surface – which your sleuth is engaged in solving – and a darker, hidden story buried between the lines. That story must be equally engaging.

Does this character impact the story (besides being the catalyst) and leave an impression on the reader? The murderer doesn’t have to be a main character, but should at least be a supporting role throughout the book. There’s two things you can’t do – introduce the murderer at the beginning of the book to never be mentioned again or introduce the murderer in the last quarter of the book. Both of those strategies are cheating. The murderer must be visible, interacting with the main characters of the book and known by the reader fairly early in the story.

Even if the answers to a couple of these questions are no, I may move ahead with my plot—but I know that I still have a lot of work to do. Still, if the character just doesn’t feel right, I might explore motives for the other character. In Prey of Desire, the identity of the original murderer changed for the better. Both characters were still in the book, but only one character brought all the elements together for a good murder mystery.

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


Keen Killings: 24 Inventive Ways to do in Your Victim

canstockphoto15905327Every murder mystery begins with one event: The Murder. And yeah, the gun shot, deadly poison and hit & run are all classics, but there’s still a lot of inventive, interesting triggers besides the one on that smoking gun. Have you ever watched ‘Final Destination’ (or 2, 3, 4, 5, for that matter)? How boring would those movies be if they limited the Grim Reaper to just the classics?

Here’s a list of 24 ideas to get your Chapter One off with a, er, bang.

  • Attacked by a vicious dog
  • Beaten by monkeys at the zoo
  • Blown to pieces by exploding barbecue grill
  • Buried alive
  • Bitten by a poisonous animal, such as spider, insect or snake
  • Bridge collapse
  • Crushed by swinging neon sign
  • Crushed by getting foot caught in escalator
  • Crushed by falling weights at the gym
  • Drowning by getting toe caught in pool drain
  • Exploding oxygen tanks
  • Gas leak & exploding House
  • Hit by bus
  • Hit in head by concrete planter or gargoyle
  • Head caught by malfunction elevator doors
  • Incinerated during a plane explosion
  • Roller coaster derailment
  • Shot by nail gun
  • Sucked out of an airplane
  • Smashed between subway and tunnel wall
  • Slipped on bath water, caught in bathtub by curtain wire & strangled
  • Trapped, incinerated in malfunction tanning beds
  • Withholding needed medication
  • Wood chipper accident

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!”

The Art of Planting Clues in a Murder Mystery

canstockphoto9200023Are you struggling with planting all those subtle clues into your murder mystery, and looking for some tips on how to misdirect your reader while still playing fair? Check out this informative article “Don’t Drop Clues, Place Them Carefully” by Stephen Rogers published on

In it, he explains that “when planting clues, there are a number of tricks you can use.

  • Clues can have ambiguous meanings. A large footprint implies someone with large feet or a small-footed person wearing large shoes.
  • Clues can point to several people. A diamond ring can implicate someone who wears diamonds, someone who sells them, or someone who steals them. It could also be a plant.
  • Clues can be misread. The detective jumps to a wrong conclusion. Will the reader follow?
  • Clues can unfold. The flat piece of metal discovered on page three makes no sense until its mate is discovered many scenes later.”

I hate that he calls them “tricks” though, as readers don’t like to be tricked. They want to be surprised. And his list above, and more within the article, explains a lot of DEVICES that a well-written mystery utilizes to keep the reader guessing. He also illustrates how to play fair.

As the article states, “clues should appear and be visible before they play their part. If the killer is arrested because of a fingerprint lifted from a shell casing, you want to mention the discovery of a shell casing if not describe the actual lifting of the print. If a shotgun is fired in the third act, you want to show the gun hanging over the fireplace in the first. (Chekhov reminds us that if you place a shotgun in the first act, you must have it fired by the third.) The reader should see the wires and mirrors but not recognize their significance. This is how the writer plays fair.”

The most brilliant nugget in the article though is his explanation of what not to do when burying a clue within a list.  He refers to a recurring example of a stealth helicopter as a being an important clue in previous sections, and then refers to again.

“So my boss hands me this folder with all the items I’m responsible for and tells me I need to tag them with inventory stickers. I start thumbing through the sheets. One metal desk, beige. One motorcycle. One filing cabinet. One laptop. One helicopter, stealth. One stapler. Fifteen desk chairs. Fifteen chairs? Why would I have fifteen chairs?”

“The danger of hiding a clue within a list is that readers may recognize a list is coming and skip ahead. While you can stand on high ground and berate readers for not savoring each and every word, this is not the way to build a fan base.”

That completely tripped me up, as I skipped right over the list. Then read the final sentence and said, “Oh, yeah. He’s right. This is brilliant!”

If you’re currently writing a mystery and struggling with clue placement, jump over to “Don’t Drop Clues, Place Them Carefully.” It’ll get you thinking…

Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Hiding Clues in a Murder Mystery Novel

Keyhole with hidden murdererWriting a mystery novel is tough. You can’t withhold all the details until the end, but if you give too much away, your reader will discover who the murderer is before your sleuth. Both should realize the identity of the murderer at the same time. So how do you keep the mystery from unraveling before the end of your story? How do you hide the culprit in a good whodunit?

Here are some techniques I found to keep the reader guessing.

Draw attention elsewhere. Basically, use the old magician’s trick of distracting the eye. Emphasize the unimportant; de-emphasize the clue. That way, the reader sees the clue but not what’s important about it and is apt to glide right over its significance.

Camouflage a clue with action. Reveal the clue in the midst of a lot of action to distract attention.

Stage the real clue right before a red herring. Generally, people tend to remember the last item in a series. So, if your clue is among a series of items (say the contents of a purse) name the item you want the reader to remember last.

Create a time problem. Manipulate time to your own advantage. On the surface, the timeline of events or the time of death appears one way, but the truth is something else. Perhaps an incorrect time of death gives a suspect an alibi.

Hide the clue in plain sight. Tuck the clue among so many other possible clues that it doesn’t stand out.

Scatter pieces of the clue in different places and mix up the logical order. Challenge your reader by revealing only part of a clue at a time.

Have the clue turn out to be what isn’t there. The suspect painstakingly explains what happened in great detail, but the clue your reader needs to notice is what should’ve happened but didn’t. .

Have your Protagonist misinterpret the meaning of a clue. Your sleuth can make a logical mistake that sends the reader’s focus on a red herring.

Establish a clue before the reader can know its significance. Introduce the key information before the reader has a context to fit it into, generally at the beginning of the book and often before the murder takes place.