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.

 

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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What is your Mystery Subgenre?

canstockphoto10560802The mystery genre has a deep subgenre which defines the degree of adult language, the amount of gore, the type of sleuth and even the level of investigation, among other things. Understanding your subgenre will help you market the story to the write audience and sell it to the right publisher.

Mystery-Suspense Subgenres

Amateur Sleuth:  the murder is solved by an ordinary person, as opposed to a professional detective or police office.

Classic Whodunit: a murder is solved by a private eye, generally written in first person from the detective’s point of view.

Comic: a murder investigation is played for laughs, often featuring a bumbling detective who is grossly unskilled, but manages to solve the crime despite himself. Inspector Gadget and Inspector Clouseau come to mind.

Cozy: a mystery in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the murder takes place in a small, socially intimate community where an outside, often eccentric detective investigates.

Dark Thriller: a mystery that ventures slightly into the horror genre, with intensified suspense and violence.

Forensic: a murder solved by a crime lab team who analyse, identify, and interpret the physical evidence. They reconstruct events to prove a crime was committed, and to connect a suspect to that crime.

Historical: a mystery that takes place in a distinct, recognizable era of history, with a great deal of emphasis on describing the details of the setting.

Legal: a mystery that takes place largely in the court room or within the justice system, and often features a defense attorney believing his client is innocent and trying to prove it.

Locked Room: a murder that appears to have been committed under impossible circumstances — such as a room with a locked door and windows and no visible sign of entry.

Police Procedural: a murder investigated from the perspective of police detective, with a great deal of emphasis on detailed, real-life police procedures.

Hard Boiled: A murder investigated by a tough-guy, private investigator for hire, who generally operates outside the long arm of the law and plays by his own rules. These are generally told from the first person Private Eye’s Point of View.

Noir: Generally a dark, disturbing narrative told from the point of view of the victim, a suspect or the murderer.

Psychological Suspense: mysteries focused the Why-dunit, not only delving into what motivated the murderer to commit the crime, but often why the sleuth is driven to investigate, and even why the suspects are driven to lie, cheat and mislead the poor sleuth

Romantic Suspense: a murder mystery which devotes an equal amount of the plot to the basic romance formula (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back).

Death of a Murder Mystery Novel

canstockphoto8528152The Librarian stepped around the corner of the bookshelf and froze. She raised her hands to her cheeks and screamed. Still, she couldn’t look away. Beaten, battered and ripped apart, it lay in pieces at her feet.

Clearly, the book was dead.

When the police arrived, the librarian pointed them to the gruesome scene. Two detectives approached the book, lying open on its spine. Its cover spread eagle. Black ink spilled off its earmarked pages and pooled on the carpet.

“Another discarded book,” Detective Barnes said, leaning down on one knee to get a closer look at the corpse.

“Like yesterday’s garbage.” The other detective, Noble, took a pen from his jacket and used it to close the book cover. “It was a mystery novel.”

Together, Barnes and Noble stood and walked toward the librarian. She cowered near the checkout counter, trembling.

“You hear about this kind of thing happening,” she said, looking up at Detective Barnes. “You just never think you’ll actually witness this kind of horror.”

“Just tell us what happened.” Barnes slipped a hand inside his jacket and pulled out a pen and note pad. He nodded toward the Librarian. She took a deep breath and looked back in the direction of the crime scene.

“Several people started the book.” Her voice was barely a whisper, as if she was frightened of what she might say. “Some would read a few chapters, others just a few pages, but the outcome was always the same: The readers would just lose interest, shut the book, and discard it.”

“And do you know why?”

She closed her eyes, scrunched her face. “The book was a murder mystery, but after a hundred pages, there was still no victim. No murder. No crime scene.”

“You mean the murder in the book didn’t occur within the first three chapters?”

“That is correct. And nobody knows exactly when the murder did occur because…” She stopped suddenly, sighed, and brought a hand to her face. It looked as if she might faint. “Because every reader gave up on the book before the mystery began.”

“Well, that’s crazy.” Barnes shut his note pad with a huff and dropped his pen. “The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook the reader. As with any fiction, but especially in a murder mystery, you want to do that as quickly as possible.”

Standing beside him, Noble nodded. “Mystery readers pick up a book for the blood, and they want it sooner, rather than later. They won’t wait a hundred pages for something to happen.”

The Librarian reached for Barnes, grasping his forearm and squeezed. “Wait,” she said. “It gets worse.”

The Detective shuddered. “You mean?”

“Yes.” The Librarian shrank back toward the edge of the counter and gripped it to support her weight. Her legs were wobbly. Her face flushed. Looking down at her feet, she spoke slowly, deliberately. “The beginning chapters were just pages of set-up and back story.”

Both detectives looked away in shame. There were some cases that were so ghastly, so incomprehensible, that it made their stomachs turn. Detective Barnes’ eyes burned, and he squinted to hold back the tears. “Readers are just sort of left in suspended animation, waiting for the murder to occur so they can participate in solving it.  It’s the whole point of a murder mystery.”

“We’ve seen it a hundred times,” Noble said. “That book lived dangerously. It broke all the rules. It was bound to get discarded like that.”

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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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.

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.

Does your sleuth have a quirk? He better have a history to back it up

canstockphoto11602983I just finished a manuscript in which a mystery is solved by an amateur sleuth who hates technology. It’s an interesting premise. Surprisingly though, the sleuth’s aversion to laptops, cell phones, iPods and treadmills had no impact on the story. It had nothing to do with the mystery or in any way helped him figure out the whodunit or capture the murderer. He just complained about technology.

After reading it, I asked the author why she gave the main character that quirk. She told me that she was trying to make the sleuth interesting, to give him a memorable personality trait. As it turns out, her writer’s group read her story and told her that the main character was too bland, and that she needed to spice him up. So she came up with that personality quirk and inserted some new dialog.

That got me to thinking: how do you make an offbeat quirk a natural part of a character’s personality?

Offbeat characteristics can be fun to write, but if not done correctly, they can be distracting to the reader. In the story I just read, it was clearly not an organic part of the narrative. It was tacked on and it felt like it. And to fix that story, two things need to happen. Number one, the sleuth’s extremely negative reaction to geeky coolness should — in some way — help him solve the murder. Number two is rooting the quirk within the character’s history.

For the most part, supporting characters can have odd, outrageous quirks without delving into that character’s pathos. The same can’t be said for main characters. Their back stories need to be more developed and should provide an explanation for the abnormal behavior. Cause and effect comes into play. You’ve got ask, “What experiences would produce that trait?”

If your sleuth is going to have a quirky personality trait, he better have a history to back it up.

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Quirky Character Traits

Writer’s Block: Stuck on What’s Supposed to Happen Next

canstockphoto12444307For me, writer’s block hits for one real reason: I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen next. I generally have a clear outline, and I know I want to take the murder mystery from point “A” to point “C.” It’s “B” — or the murky middle — that either veers off path or writes itself into a corner. When this happens, I have to go back to that outline and take some time to plan.

One surefire tip I use to get back on path is to give the Protagonist a backseat and focus on another character. Returning to the outline, I pick a supporting character (often one of the key suspects) and plot out his story. What was he doing when the murder occurred? Where was he when the sleuth began the murder investigation? I take it scene by scene and explore what this character was doing. This will often reveal bridges from points where the narrative veers off path to the critical scenes that lead to the climax.

Plotting a supporting character’s story arc will hopefully develop into an exciting sub plot, one that leads the sleuth and the reader on a wild and bumpy ride away from the true murderer. However, if the supporting character’s story turns out to be just outline material, where very little of it is actually fleshed out and written into the story, that’s okay. It will still help strengthen the continuity of the mystery as a whole.

So, if like me you find yourself reluctant to to even think about your mystery novel, it could be you’re not thinking about it enough. Instead of forcing yourself to write the next scene, let the keyboard sit idle and invest thinking time in plotting a supporting character’s story. You may be surprised where it takes you.

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