Wednesday, May 21

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery


Ever wanted to write a murder mystery? I have! I love murder mysteries. I love reading them, I love watching them, I love thinking about them. But, for some reason, I've never gotten very far at actually writing one. 

And so I was terrifically, fabulously, excited when I discovered that Lee Goldberg--screenwriter, executive producer, award winning mystery author, and New York Times bestselling author--had written an article about how to write a murder mystery. If anyone knows about writing a murder mystery, it's Goldberg. In addition to writing 15 Mr. Monk books (all of which I have read and enjoyed), Goldberg wrote 26 episodes of Diagnosis Murder and was an executive producer for the show. What follows is drawn from Lee Goldberg's article.

The Qualities of a Terrific Detective


Lee Goldberg writes:

"The idea for the mystery will arise from the personality of the hero, and what aspects of his character I want to explore, what arena (a place, industry, sport, culture, etc.) I want to put him in, and finally what kind of conflict I think will best bring all of those aspects together and give me a narrative engine for my story."[1]

The above paragraph, like most of Goldberg's wonderful article, is densely packed with information. Let's write out the points he brought up so we can see it at a glance:

- The detective should have an interesting personality.
- The detective should have a well-developed character.
- The setting (or arena) for the mystery should be pregnant with potential conflict.

The complex interplay of these three things (personality, character and setting) forms the narrative engine for the story.

An example: Adrian Monk


Lee Goldberg writes:

"If the character is, say, Adrian Monk, I start by asking myself what new aspect of his personality, his obsessive/compulsive disorder, and his relationships with others, can I explore this time? What situation can I put him in that he hasn’t been in before?"[1]

Let's unpack this.

1a. Personality


What is personality? For our purposes, I'm going to go with Wikipedia and say that:

"Personality has to do with individual differences among people in behavior patterns, cognition and emotion." (Personality, Wikipedia) 

When we talk about a person's--or a character's--personality we're talking about what is unique to them. What makes them who they are. It is the specific combination of general elements that comes together to make each person unique.

1b. Character


While personality has to do with what makes each individual unique--as well as how that can go wrong--character has more to do with the type of person one is. It has to do with archetypes, tropes. I'm not sure if that's how Goldberg uses the term, but it's how I'll use it in this article. 

1c. Strengths and weaknesses.


Like us, our characters have weaknesses. Mr. Monk had a prodigious memory as well as the ability to make connections between apparently unrelated things. He also suffered from an obsessive compulsive disorder and was scared of just about everything. Sherlock Holmes (in Sherlock) is inhumanly smart but socially clueless. Hercule Poirot was brilliant but vain. All characters have strengths and weaknesses. 

1d. Relationships


Our characters strengths and weaknesses define them, but so do their relationships with others. 

Every character has a goal and these goals conflict with each other. Also, these goals should get in the way of the main character--the detective--achieving their goal: solving the murder.

Additionally, characters and their interrelationships provide an excellent way to 'hook' characters into the story's setting/arena.

1e. Setting/Arena


Lee Goldberg writes:

"Those questions inevitably lead me to the arena, the world in which our story will take place. A UFO convention. A murder in a police precinct. A road-trip in a motorhome. But an arena is not necessarily a place. It can also be a situation, like the rivalry between mother and daughter for the love of the same man. Or how people cope with unexpected, and devastating financial hardship. Or how having a child changes relationships. The arena can also be a sport. The world of horse racing. The world of stamp collecting.

"You get the idea.

"The arena can be anything. It’s the setting, the backdrop, the context that allows you to reveal your hero to the reader in entertaining and compelling ways."[1]

The Inciting Incident


In a murder mystery the Inciting Incident is often the murder itself. Sometimes--I believe CSI does it this way, or at least used to when I watched CSI Vegas--the murder is shown first and then the hero, the detective (or detectives), comes on scene after the body is discovered. Sometimes the murder isn't shown and we just see the Call to Adventure and the detective is asked to discover the identity of the murderer.

Lee Goldberg writes that the main purpose of what I'm calling the Inciting Incident is to "create conflict and reveal character." Lester Dent wrote about having a clever device for the murder; something interesting, something puzzling. And I think that's important, but whatever one uses, whatever one's Inciting Incident is, it must serve those two functions; one about plot, the other character. It must:

(a) create conflict, and
(b) reveal character.

The Clues


Lee Goldberg writes:

"Now I can get into the nuts and bolts of figuring out the clues, and how the hero will discover them. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, either, because the clues will also be organic to the story, and because of that, they won’t just lead us to the killer, they will also stoke the conflict, illuminate the theme, and open up our arena. The clues will reveal themselves to you. Trust me on this."

The clues must:

- Lead to the killer
- Stoke the conflict
- Illuminate the theme
- Open up the arena

Using the clues.


"I need a number of clues, some red-herrings that point to other suspects, and some that point right to the murderer."[1]

The finish clue.


"The hardest clue is the finish clue, or as I call it, the “Ah, ha!” the little shred of evidence that allows the hero to solve the crime—but still leaves the reader in the dark.

"The finish clue is the hardest part of writing any mystery for me because it has to be something obscure enough that it won’t make it obvious who the killer is to everybody, but definitive enough that the reader will be satisfied when the hero nails the murderer with it."[1]

Character solutions vs forensic solutions.


Character solutions are, all things being equal, better than forensic solutions. Lee Goldberg writes:

"In my experience, the best “Ah-ha!” clues come from character, not from mere forensics. For instance, a character solution is having the hero discover that Aunt Mildred is the murderer because she’s such a clean freak, she couldn’t resist doing the dishes after killing her nephew. That’s so much more satisfying than a forensic solution, like finding Aunt Mildred’s finger print, or catching her on a security camera, or anything else that doesn’t require the detective to be clever and make some surprising deductions."[1]

That's it for today. On Friday I'll finish up looking at Lee Goldberg's article: How To Write A Murder Mystery. We'll look at the murderer, the victim, open versus closed mysteries as well as the importance of fair play. Stay tuned!

Update: Here's a link to How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery, Part Two of Two.

Here are other articles I've written about how to write a murder mystery.

Notes/References



6 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this post, Karen. I'm a big fan of Lee Goldberg's and I'm so glad you featured him.

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    1. Thanks Mary! That means a lot coming from you. Love your books. Cheers. :-)

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  2. nice article! u should also know that lee goldberg wrote 15 monk novels.

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    1. Thanks Kim. Yes, I know! Lee Goldberg's (awesome!) Monk books were my first introduction to his writing.

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    2. ur article says that he published 16.

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    3. Ah! Gottya. Thanks for the correction. I was mistakenly counting "Mr. Monk Helps Himself" by Hy Conrad.

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