Have 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:
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.
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.
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.
- The Sleuth identifies one of the suspects as the killer
At 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…
- 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 life 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.
- 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 way out.
- 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:
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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