Rules for Writing a Mystery Novel

canstockphoto9200023Like any good game, there are rules to writing a good mystery. The author challenges the reader to solve the crime before the detective. The reader expects there to be clues leading to the correct answer, and trusts that everything will come together in the end.  So, for the author to play fair, these rules must be followed.

Rules to Writing a Good Murder Mystery:

  1. The crime must be a murder. Burglary, kidnapping, extortion and the like make for great thrillers, but only murder makes a mystery worth solving. Personally, I like to begin with the murder, then introduce the sleuth and start the investigation. However, there’s nothing wrong with having the murder occur before the story begins, or introduce the sleuth, victim and suspects, then have the murder occur.
  2. The murder must be believable. In other words, the motive, means and opportunity all make sense, and the culprit must be physically and emotionally capable of committing the murderer.
  3. Introduce both the detective and the murderer early on, preferably within the first three chapters.
  4. The detective must solve the mystery using only rational and scientific methods that, if observant, the reader could equally solve the mystery with the same information.
  5. Provide at least three genuine clues that point to the murderer’s identity. These clues don’t have to jump off the page, and probably shouldn’t, but they have to exist, none the less.
  6. Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit, ultimately in the penultimate or final chapter.

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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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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.

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.

Creative Ways of Determining Time of Death

canstockphoto16621847Obviously, pathologists use rigor mortis, livor mortis, algor mortis, body temperature and basic decomposition to determine a victim’s time of death. But, in a mystery suspense novel, we authors sometimes have to get a little more creative. Time of Death is often an important clue (or red herring) and one of the facts deduced by an interesting sleuth.

Here are ten ideas for your sleuth to determine Time of Death beyond normal forensics.

  1. Victim was on the phone when killed
  2. Victim was sending or had just sent a text message or email message
  3. The victim’s arm hits something when he falls dead,busting the wrist watch and freezing the clock hands
  4. A neighbor hears a commotion/gun shot/scream at a specific time
  5. The victim pressed a monitored alarm at a specific time
  6. The victim was shot/stabbed/attacked while recording a video blog update, and managed to upload the video before dying
  7. Determining the development cycle of fly larvae in the wound
  8. The victim ordered a pizza. Twenty minutes later, the pizza delivery boy arrives and finds the body.
  9. The victim posted a message on an Internet chat bulletin board before dying.
  10. The victim was filmed on a parking lot security camera.

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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