Friday, October 14

The Structure of a Murder Mystery

The Structure of a Murder Mystery

I’ve written many stories in many genres but I’ve never finished writing a murder mystery. Which is odd given that I absolutely LOVE murder mysteries.

I’ve often wondered why I have this particular disconnect. Here’s what I think:

In writing there's 'head smarts' and what I think of as ' heart smarts.' When we write a zero draft we draw from our heart smarts. This means that, no matter how much we know about story structure, that's not what guides us when we write. (It's what guides us when we edit.) And if we try to impose some sort of structure (head) on our words as we're in the creative moment (heart), it can block the words.

But we should still make sure our stories are properly structured! But I think it's best to leave that to the first draft.

Elisabeth S. Craig's Take on The Structure of a Mystery

I love Elisabeth S. Craig’s blog—Mystery Writing is Murder. What a great title! ESC is a bestselling mystery writer. When I started reading her blog years ago she was published by Penguin but has now transitioned to a hybrid author.

One of her latest posts is “Pre-Writing.” I encourage you to head over there and read ESC's article for yourself.

In what follows I’m going to go over ESC's structure for a cozy mystery and study it. Maybe—maybe!—this will inspire me to try, once again, to write a mystery. (Perhaps I’ll attempt a short story this time!)

A Mystery Structure in Three Acts

In what follows I try to keep very close to what ESC says, though I have inserted some information drawn from the many mysteries I've devoured.

Act One

1. Setup/Status Quo

Introduce all your characters starting with the sleuth. ESC writes: It’s “best to start out with [the] sleuth so that [the] reader knows who to identify with right away.”

2. Inciting Incident

You have two choices here:

(a) Write a “... scene showing [the] interaction of [the] future victim and future suspects ...”


(b) Introduce a body.

3. Call To Adventure & Acceptance of the Call

If the sleuth isn’t part of the police force then they have to get pulled into the case somehow. A friend has to beg them to become involved, or perhaps the person who died was someone they cared deeply about, or perhaps the sleuth is a suspect, or ... You get the idea.

Act Two

4. Tests & Trials/Fun & Games

  • The Sleuth interviews suspects.
  • The suspects provide alibis.
  • A red herring or two is thrown out by the writer.
  • Some of the suspects lie. Perhaps some lies are lies of omission, perhaps other people simply are confused, they mis-recall things. Some lies have to do with awful things they've done, but these things have nothing to do with the murder. And, of course, one person is lying because they're the murderer.
  • And perhaps one of the suspects actually tells the truth!

5. Midpoint

Another body is found. In my experience as an avid reader of murder mysteries, the second murder whips the story around in another direction. (Another way of saying this is that the midpoint is a plot point, it introduces a complication that twists the story.) For example, often the victim was the chief suspect. Another possibility is that the second death mystifies the sleuth because it doesn't fit into his/her theory of the crime.

6. Setback

The second murder puts the sleuth back to square one.

ESC writes, “Give suspects [the] opportunity to refute [the] evidence pointing to them from the previous murder.” See (4) above.

The sleuth’s previous plan is shot. He/she never thought that the second victim would be murdered. Or perhaps he/she doesn’t have a firm theory but he/she is devastated by the death because he/she had some personal connection to the victim, or perhaps the victim reminds the sleuth of someone he/she cared a great deal about, or perhaps the victim was an exceptionally good person and an enormous loss to the community. And so on.

Act Three

7. A New Plan/Theory

This is what I think of as the lightbulb moment. The sleuth has an epiphany, puts two and two together, something sparks a revelation, etc. But the sleuth has to confirm it. He/she has to be sure.

8. Climax

Put the sleuth in danger. Increase the tension, increase the stakes.

From my reading and viewing experience, the sleuth is sometimes stalked by the killer. But sometimes the sleuth isn't threatened with death. Sometimes his/her job is on the line. Sometimes it's 'just' his/her reputation. Sometimes the life of someone the sleuth cares a great deal about is threatened. There are many different kinds of stakes that can be raised.

Eventually, though, the sleuth will turn the tables on the murderer and bring him/her to justice.

9. Wrap-Up

This is the denouement. The sleuth draws the curtain back and, clue by clue, explains how he/she solved the mystery.

ESC writes, “Are there other components in the story? Of course. But this is the basic structure of a mystery, just as other genres have their own skeletons.”

The Characters

Before you sit down to write your zero draft, think about:

  • Who will your sleuth have as a sidekick?
  • What are the potential motives of the characters?
  • How were the murders done? What weapons were used?
  • Think about what kind of subplot you’ll have. ESC writes that at this point you’re “just brainstorming.” I’ll add here, courtesy of Lester Dent, that you might want to make the murder method big, bold, dramatic, unusual, exaggerated, shocking, different. Think about all the different ways characters were done away with in Midsomer Murders.
  • The murderer. ESC writes that she doesn’t worry too much about the murderer’s identity. Sometimes she doesn’t know this until she’s at the climax of the story! She writes, “The killer’s identity? Not really.  I have an idea who I think may be a good killer, but I frequently change my mind 3/4 of the way through the first draft.  It’s always good to be flexible.”

The Suspects

How many suspects should you have? The suspects are going to be characters who have a reason, a motive, to want the victim dead. In ESC’s example she lists five suspects: the niece, daughter, son, husband and friend.

Did the victim have a lot of money that his/her family and friends had a lively expectation of inheriting?

Did the victim use their money and power to manipulate others? If so, who?

That’s it! I hope you have a great, productive, weekend. I’ll talk to you again on Monday. In the meantime, good writing!

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  1. hmmm. I met a writer of cozies at a recent writer gathering. I told her I have been wanting to try a mystery. About the only thing I haven't written (besides a romance, erotic, or Western). So I read this with enthusiasm. And I must sounds about like every other genre. Rule one. Every paragraph must be interesting. Rule two. Every paragraph must logically follow the preceding paragraph.

    Huge sigh.

    So I should start plotting one right away.


    Thanks for your ever-good advice/direction/suggestions.


    1. lol Good point! I've written a few posts now about how to write a murder mystery and want to draw them all together into one post. There are unique elements to a murder mystery but, you're right, perhaps the structure of a story is the structure of a story regardless of the genre. :-)

  2. One thing I've noticed is that there's often a false resolution before the final reveal--one person is thought to be the culprit and sometimes even arrested or taken out of the picture so that the protagonist feels a temporary sense of safety. And then the real culprit is revealed in some way--either the sleuth has an epiphany or discovers something new, or the culprit reveals him or herself.

    1. Right! Thank you for mentioning that, Caroline. Exactly so. My absolute all-time favorite ending where this occurred happens to be a movie rather than abook: Basic Instinct. Even 1 minute before the movie ends the audience thinks the killer is Dr. Beth Garner. Then, in the closing moments it looks as though they're going to do a flip and say, no, the killer is Catherine Tramell after all. But they don't. The movie fades to black and it seems to be over. But no! The camera comes on and we see the ice pick Tramell has placed by the side of the bed. SHE IS the real killer after all.

      I find this ending is more common in thrillers than in cosy mysteries, but I definitely have seen it done in a cosy. Especially when the real killer is someone difficult to accuse, like the sleuth's boss. :-)


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