canstockphoto2235123So, in a murder mystery, when should the corpse be found? The quick answer is “as soon as possible.” However, there are two rules you must respect:

  1. The murder must occur within the first 3 chapters.

Anyone who picks up a murder mystery is expecting, well, a murder to occur. Until that happens, the reader is just sort of left in suspended animation, waiting for something to happen. I’ve read a lot of mysteries where the actual murder took place before the book began, and the corpse is found in chapter one. I’ve also read books where the first two or three chapters are setting-up suspects and motivations, then the murder occurs. Personally, I like to start off with the murder occurring in chapter one, then introduce the sleuth in chapter two.

  1. The murderer must be present within the first 3 chapters.

You’re not playing fair if the character who committed the murder is introduced too late in the book to be a viable suspect. He (or she) should be present from the very beginning. A strong mystery writer will introduce the character, but not draw attention to him.

Really, you can’t go wrong as long as a body is found that kicks-off the investigation within the first three chapters. The murder and the questions that follow are what hook your reader. Obviously, you want to do that as quickly as possible.


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.

Want to read more? Check out:


You’ll never guess whodunit in this mystery, and there’s a really lame reason why…

What’s wrong with this short story?

canstockphoto15371783Gwen worked late every Thursday night, preparing reports and assorted charts for a standing Friday morning meeting. Her family was on their own for dinner that night, but they were used to it. This had been Gwen’s schedule ever since she got the promotion. Her husband generally brought home take-out for their son, as Dad didn’t like to cook and J.R. was too young to be trusted with the stove and oven.

This Thursday was different though. Gwen worked even later than usual and the office building seemed deathly still. Near ten o’clock, she glanced at the clock and realized she was alone in the building. Like she always did, she called her house to let her family know that she was about to leave.

“J.R. is already in bed,” her husband said through the phone.

Gwen hung-up, grabbed her purse and headed for the elevator. When she made it to the ground floor, she left the building and locked the entrance doors behind her. She stepped into the parking lot, took her keys from her purse and headed in the direction of her car. She never saw the figure who rushed up behind or the knife that cut her throat.”

The story goes on to describe how Gwen is wrapped in black garbage bags and dumped in the lake. Her husband is the obvious suspect, but the reader knows it can’t be him because she was just on the phone with him before the murder. There are other suspects too. A co-worker is angry that Gwen was promoted over him (although if she has to work late making copies and that’s considered a promotion, I can’t even begin to imagine how mind numbing this co-worker’s job must be.) Then there’s her best friend who, it turns out, has been secretly in love with the husband and is harboring a deep resentment toward Gwen. So if the husband didn’t do it, then obviously one of the others did.

But you’ll never guess who turns out to be the culprit.

J.R. rushed into the kitchen just as the Detective placed handcuffs on his angry father. Dad looked back at him with swollen, red eyes. J.R. brushed the mud off the knees of his pants then approached them. A uniformed police officer held him back.

“Don’t worry,” his Dad said to him as he struggled with his arms bound behind his back. “Trust Daddy. I didn’t hurt your mother.”

J.R. didn’t answer. He listened as the Detective read Dad his rights, then pushed him slightly toward the front door. The Detective led his father out of the house and into the waiting squad car. J.R. watched all this silently, without any emotion. Then when the police had left, and the house was quiet again, he returned to the backyard where he had been playing earlier.

His sandbox was waiting, and he piled into it, scooting dirt from one framed side to the other. He dug a hole in the middle of the sand pile, uncovering something shiny. Something sharp. J.R. picked up the kitchen knife. It still had his mother’s dried blood on it.

“Damn,” he said, perhaps to himself, perhaps to voices only he could hear. “Now Dad’s not going to be home on Thursday nights either.”

So what’s wrong with this mystery? Where do I begin?

Right off the bat, it’s hard to imagine the police leaving this kid behind at home when his father was just arrested and his mother was murdered. Also, you never, ever jump in the head of the murderer like that. But… before I start getting hate mail for spoiling someone’s story, let me confess.

This murder mystery, titled “Child’s Play,” was written by me 20 years ago when I was a Sophomore in high school. I was quite proud of it back then. Today, I think it’s a great example of what not to do.

“Child’s Play” breaks a lot of rules, and I’m not talking about the chronic point of view shifts – which I just didn’t get back then. It commits one of the most egregious and inexcusable offenses in mystery writing: The murderer couldn’t possibly have been capable of committing the crime.

If you put any thought into it, J.R. could not have carried out the murder that was set-up in the opening paragraphs. Obviously, he is young – very young – as he still plays in a sandbox and is not trusted to use the stove and oven. So how did he get to the office building parking lot? He certainly didn’t drive. And the narrative presents the murderer as being close to, if not the same, size as Gwen. So either J.R. is a really big kid or Gwen was a very small woman.

Though most readers may not have guessed the murderer’s identity – unless the title gave it away – they must still believe the motivation. The murderer can’t just be physically capable of committing the murder, he must also be emotionally capable. J.R. may possibly hear voices. He’s clearly psychopathic. But is Mom not being home on Thursday nights really a motive for murder?

Finally, it breaks one more rule. Since I didn’t publish the story in its entirety, you’ll just have to trust me on this one. The story goes to great lengths to set up the red herrings – the father, the jealous best friend, the disgruntled co-worker. However, J.R. is only mentioned in passing. Aside from jumping into his head to witness his father carted off to jail and then racing to his sandbox to play with the murder weapon, the reader never gets to know the kid. This can’t happen in a murder mystery.

The murderer must turn out to be a character with, more or less, a prominent part in the story. The reader must be familiar with the character and somewhat interested in him. Otherwise the author isn’t playing fair and risks turning off readers.

Like I said, I was chest-thumping proud of this story way back when. I believe it was even published in a high school short story anthology. It wasn’t the first mystery I’d written, and without trying and making those early mistakes, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s got some great albeit unintentional lessons in it. Maybe I’ll pull out another old story and make an example out of it too.

Unlawful Behavior: Just how bad is your bad guy?

canstockphoto9774163Unlawful behavior is a violation of the laws of a civilized society. In every society, a code of behavior exists that governs right from wrong. Behavior that violates that code of is considered an unlawful act.

Many different codes and systems exist for regulating behavior. Some countries, such as the United States and United Kingdom, operate on a common law system. Other countries, such as France, operate on a civil law system.

Under a common legal system, the law is developed by judges through decisions of the courts. The legislature or executive branch can pass formal statutory laws, which are written laws published in code books. Judges can also make law in the form of case law, which means that when a judge sets forth a rule, that rule applies in other cases as well.

In a civil legal system, all legislation is codified into a referable system which serves as the primary source of law. Only this written formal law is enforced.

Just how bad is your bad guy?

  • Armed robbery
  • Arson
  • Art theft
  • Assault
  • Bribery
  • Burglary
  • Child endangerment
  • Computer theft
  • Computer hacking
  • Conspiracy
  • Counterfeiting
  • Drug trafficking
  • Embezzlement
  • Extortion
  • Forgery
  • Fraud
  • Gambling
  • Hijacking
  • Homicide / murder
  • Identity Theft
  • Kidnapping
  • Larceny
  • Loan Sharking
  • Piracy
  • Prostitution
  • Racketeering
  • Rape
  • Robbery
  • Slavery
  • Smuggling


Motives for Murder Mysteries

WHYMy favorite part of reading a mystery is learning the Big Why behind the murder and cover-up. The reasons can be creative and elaborate. However, the best murder mysteries are those which act as dark metaphors for real life events and experiences.

The construction of a murder mystery always starts with motive: why the murderer killed someone.

Here’s a list of ideas for motives:

  • Anger
  • Compulsion
  • Cover-Up & Hide Criminal Activity
  • Destruction of Evidence
  • Eliminating someone blocking a real estate deal
  • Framing another
  • Getting rid of a witness
  • Greed
  • Insanity
  • Jealousy
  • Love
  • Lust
  • Obsession
  • Power & Position
  • Prevent discovery of a crime
  • Profit
  • Protecting another
  • Revenge
  • Security, protect a position
  • Temporary Insanity
  • To keep a Secret
  • Thrill & Depraved Enjoyment

Want to read more? Check out:
Writing a Murder Mystery: Motives for Murder
Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Hiding Clues in a Murder Mystery
The Art of Planting Clues in a Murder Mystery

Jargon: Classifications of Murder

canstockphoto15852829Murder isn’t just murder. There’s a lot of subcategories that tie strongly to the motive. Understanding the type of murder is understanding your murderer. So here’s a list of definitions to the types of murder.

Homicide is the act of taking the life of another.

Criminal Homicide is a homicide that is neither excusable or justifiable.There must be premeditation, intent to kill or to commit bodily harm; the perpetrator must be engaged in a dangerous act with wanton disregard for human life, such as robbery, rape, aggravated assault, etc.

Murder: Killing with malice aforethought or premeditation. The law presumes all homicides brought to trial to be murder unless the accused can prove there was an excuse or the act was justifiable.

Manslaughter: an unlawful and felonious killing without premeditation or malice aforethought

Voluntary Manslaughter: the unlawful killing of another committed in the heat of passion caused by adequate provocation. It is not murder even though there was intent to kill or commit great bodily harm.

Involuntary Manslaughter: an unlawful homicide without intent to kill, e.g. as in negligence or while perpetrating an offense other than burglary, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault.

Excusable Homicide: the outcome of an accident or misadventure while doing a lawful act in a lawful manner without negligence, such as a hunter shooting a concealed person.

Justifiable Homicide: “authorized” killing to prevent the commission of a felony such as rape, robbery, etc. or the escape of an armed perpetrator while performing a legal duty under the scope of authority and without negligence, such as a law officer having authorization to shoot to kill.

Want to read more? Check out:

Writing a Murder Mystery: Motives for Murder

Writing a Murder Mystery: Motives for Murder

canstockphoto14386385After revealing “Who Done It,” the most important piece of the puzzle in a good murder mystery is “Why Done It.” The Antagonist’s reason to commit murder and hide it must be creative, make sense and be ultimately satisfying to your reader. So, it got me thinking: What are some basic motives for murder?

Here’s the list I started. Feel free to comment and add to the list.


1. To hide a secret. This is the most obvious motive. The Victim stumbles upon the Antagonist’s closely guarded secret, and he kills her so she won’t reveal it.

  • A father, scared of losing his daughter’s love if she ever finds out that she was adopted, murders the child’s biological mother when she suddenly reappears in their lives.

2. Greed. The Antagonist wants the victim’s fortune, property or something else of value… and is willing to kill to get his hands on it.

  • The Femme Fatale murders her wealthy, old lover with a heart condition after he names her in his last will and testament.

3. Revenge. The Antagonist wants to even the score for some past wrong doing (which is often detailed in the prologue) and the victim pays the price.

  • The successful computer geek attends his high school reunion and kills the formal popular cheerleader who made fun of him some twenty years ago
  • The successful computer geek murders the red-headed dance teacher who looks eerily similar to that hateful cheerleader who made fun of him in high school

4. Obsession, Frustration & Hate. Have you hugged a sociopath today? This is a great opportunity to expose your Antagonist’s prejudices and/or deep-seeded obsessions.

  • A deeply religious mother murders her son’s college professor because of something taught at school.
  • The shy, awkward boy in the back of class has been sending notes to the popular girl in his Chemistry class. Unfortunately. when she rebukes his advances, he lashes out by killing her.
  • After a lifetime of seething jealousy, the unemployed, divorced, broke older brother finally murders his successful, wealthy, happily married with a beautiful home and three beautiful kids, younger brother.

5. Love, Sex & Jealousy. Maybe this should be motive #1. At least it seems like it in real life if you watch any of the murder investigation documentaries on cable television. Does it even need an example? Pick a love triangle and you’ve got a motive.

  • The Traveling Salesman’s pregnant wife is found dead after he tells his college-aged girlfriend won’t end his marriage.

6. Crime of Passion.  Your Antagonist’s anger gets the best of him, and he snaps in a fit of rage. Generally, everyone is shocked by his actions, as he seems like the last person on the planet who’d ever commit such a heinous murder. Often the Antagonist doesn’t remember what happened, as he was out of his head at the time.

  • A father becomes so enraged at his wife for ripping the family apart when she tells him that she’s leaving him for her personal trainer that he shoots their two children dead before turning the gun on himself. Neighbors couldn’t believe it; he was such a normal, quiet Family Man.

7. Psychosis & Mental Disorders.  The Antagonist is detached from society (maybe even humanity) and does something unthinkable, generally for reasons that are just in his head.

  • A mother, who believes voices are instructing her to do bad things, drowns her children 

8. To protect personal status. Your Antagonist is very threatened by the Victim’s success, talents or attention, and commits murder to balance the scales.

  • An incensed, corporate ladder-climber murders her competition for a high-profile, high-paying position.
  • An aging rock star — who is now humiliating reduced to opening act for a new, popular, younger pop star  — plots a stage mishap to get the young phenom out of the way.

9. To protect a loved one. You would do anything for your kids, including murder if someone was hurting one of them. Well, so would your Antagonist. And sometimes loved ones moves beyond family, or even people.

  • A father kills a teacher who was abusing his child
  • An over-protective mother murders the high school student who has been mercilessly bullying her son
  • A deer hunter and wildlife enthusiast murders the CEO of logging company that is decimating his forest. 

10. Empathy or Sympathy. The Antagonist doesn’t have malicious intent; in fact, he’s acting (or believes) in the Victim’s best interest. .

  • The Caregiver gives the ailing, elderly patient a heavy sleeping potion so she slips quietly away in the night.
  • A nursing student helps a dying cancer patient commit suicide so that he can die with dignity.

Hope these help. If you have any examples or other ideas, please post in the comments!