WAITER! THERE’S A DEAD GUY ON PAGE ONE!

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.

 

ROUND UP THE (UN)USUAL SUSPECTS …

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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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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Vibrant Victims: Two types of dead bodies in your murder mystery

canstockphoto14296225Your thriller has an intriguing plot, a captivating sleuth and a mysterious villain. Now what? Well, there’s still one more character who needs to be just as compelling: The victim. After all, your whole Whodunit revolves around the victim.

Victims generally come in two flavors.

There’s the beloved character who no one would ever want to hurt, and it seems like absolutely no one could have a motive to kill. This creates a challenging mystery: Why would anyone murder such a well-loved person? There’s always greed — maybe the victim had something that someone else wanted. Maybe the victim wasn’t quite so adored after all—hiding a mean streak, covered-up a secret past, was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Then there’s the malcontent who everyone despises, and just about every other character in the story is a viable murder suspect. Red herrings galore! With an abundance of suspects, the reader must pay close attention to figure out which one has not only motive, but means AND opportunity.

Both types of victims need a fleshed-out back story. Even if the entire history doesn’t find its way into the final draft, the author must be intimately familiar with it to create a memorable, yet peripheral, character, Readers must connect in some way with the dearly departed. That won’t happen unless the victim leaves an impression.

Finally, whether beloved by all or despised by many, the victim must have at least one Person of Significance. This person is motivated by his connection to the victim to ask questions, seek out information and pursue the truth. He can be the Protagonist or he can be a supporting character who sets the plot in motion, allowing the Protagonist to begin investigating the murder.

More than just a dead body, the victim must be a character who leaves a lasting impression.

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Murder Mystery Victim Generator