Wednesday, March 29

Writing a Murder Mystery: 7 More Characteristics That Make a Murderer Interesting. Part Two of Two

7 More Characteristics That Make a Murderer Interesting. Part Two of Two

This post is a continuation of my last post, Writing a Murder Mystery, Character Creation: The Murderer, Part One of Two.

Let’s continue our discussion.

7 More Characteristics That Make a Murderer Interesting:

1. The murderer must be a worthy adversary for the sleuth.

Storytellers want their audience to think the detective is clever and resourceful. How is this done? Easy! SHOW the detective being clever and resourceful by pitting her against an opposing force—the murderer—who is as clever and resourceful as herself.

When the detective fails (as she inevitably will at some point) the reader will understand that the detective is up against someone brilliant. If the murderer isn't clever, then when the sleuth fails there is a real danger the reader will lose interest.

In addition, if the murderer is at least as clever as the detective, when the detective solves the mystery and unmasks the murderer it will mean more. We want the murderer to be perceived as being so clever that ONLY your detective could have brought him to justice.

2. The murderer should act from motives of self-interest.

No inexplicable desires or drives, please. The murderer should have an easy-to-understand motive. This goes back to what P.D. James wrote about all motives boiling down to lust, lucre, loathing and love (see: The Murderer, Part One of Two[]).

3. The murderer often has a deep psychological wound.

Having a deep wound will help humanize the murderer, it will make him more sympathetic. A sympathetic character is one a reader can understand and understandable characters are ones readers can relate to. They are compelling.

4. The murderer’s ‘type’ is clear.

The murderer is brilliant.

Fictional murderers come in all sorts of flavors but we could say, broadly, that they come in two types: some murderers are brilliant (e.g., Moriarty from Sherlock[link]) while others ... not so much.

If a murderer is brilliant then, often, their strength is also their weakness. For example, in the TV show Sherlock[link] Moriarty is a brilliant psychopath. I say brilliant but it seems he’s not QUITE as clever as Sherlock. Moriarty’s oddness is explained by his intelligence, as is Sherlock’s (in this sense Moriarty is Sherlock’s nemesis[]).

Moriarty is so intelligent ordinary humans are like ants to him. The master criminal thinks of himself as a different, and clearly superior, species. Just as many humans wouldn't bat an eye at killing a mouse or deer so Moriarty wouldn't hesitate to kill a human if it was in his interest to do so (shades of Hannibal Lecter).

As for Sherlock, his friends—John Watson and Mrs. Hudson—keep him connected to humanity, they keep him human. Moriarty has no such connection and in consequence his brilliance has stripped him of his humanity.

Another detective who, broadly speaking, fits this pattern is Mr. Monk[link]. Recall Mr. Monk’s catch phrase: It’s a gift ... and a curse. Sherlock’s brilliance is both what allows him to solve crimes and it’s also what isolates him from other people; it’s what sets him apart.

The murderer is garden variety.

If the murderer is more of a garden variety murderer then his motive usually has something to do with greed, desperation, depravity, and so on.

In a psychology course I once took the professor said that humans have four motivations for all their behavior: feeding, fleeing, fighting and ... sex. Translating this into the language of a murder mystery, the common murderer is interested in:

  • Feeding: The murderer wishes to continue life as it is but someone is threatening his status quo.
  • Fleeing: All hell has broken lose and the murderer has to disappear but someone is preventing this.
  • Fighting: The murderer is in a smiting mood. He wants to destroy an enemy. 
  • Sex: Love and lust. Obsession. Love and lust are distinct and yet intertwined. Though, arguably, one can love or lust after something inanimate, here I’m talking about loving or lusting after a person. The murderer would do anything—and I do mean ANYTHING—to gain the affections of this individual, but someone is standing in her way.

4. Make the conflict personal.

Make the conflict between the sleuth and the murderer personal. Whatever motivation you give the murderer, make him want to taunt the sleuth. Also, make the sleuth willing to take crazy risks to catch the murderer.

If the murderer is caught then his/her life is over, perhaps literally, but if the murderer gets away with it, what then? What will the sleuth lose?

If the sleuth isn’t able to solve the puzzle and figure out the who, what, where, why and how—or, worse, if he offers up an incorrect solution—this would not only ruin the sleuth's reputation but send an innocent person to prison. And condemning the innocent is something the sleuth MUST care about unless he or she is an anti-hero. Caring about justice, about fairness, is a large part of what separates white hats from black hats.

5. Show that the murderer is one sick puppy.

For most of the story the antagonist is going to wear a mask. Underneath the mask she is getting more desperate and her sickness, her desperation, escalates.

One way we could show this is by escalating the number of murders, their violence, as well as the murderer's reckless daring.

6. Let your antagonist win occasionally.

Your sleuth needs setbacks. He needs strong opposition to battle against and, so, occasionally, he needs to fail. Often this happens at or near the midpoint. The sleuth—or the sleuth's helper, his Watson—thinks he knows who did it. But he’s wrong. Around either the Midpoint or the All Hope is Lost point, the suspect is found dead, killed the way the other victims were.

7. Show the killer's true face at the end.

So far the killer has hidden her true face: she is a cold-blooded killer. She has taken the lives of those she knew, perhaps even those she loved. And she did it for personal gain. She's not nice, not ordinary, perhaps not even sane. But for most of the story she has hidden in plain sight and has acted like everyone else. At the end we need to show her as she really is. We need to show readers the murderer's contempt for those around her, for those who counted themselves as her friends.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Midsomer Murders, Season 18.

From the blurb: “The cozy villages of Midsomer County reveal their most sinister secrets in these contemporary British television mysteries.”

That’s it for today! I’ll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing!

Tuesday, March 28

Writing a Murder Mystery, Character Creation: The Murderer, Part One of Two

Writing a Murder Mystery, Character Creation: The Murderer, Part One of Two

"Once I figure out whom to kill, and how, and of course why, then I start asking myself what the killer did wrong, or what he overlooked, that will lead to his undoing." —Lee Goldberg[1]
“One of the most critical skills an aspiring writer needs is the ability to build a solid villain. Even the greatest protagonist in the world cannot truly shine without an equally well-rendered opposition. The converse of that statement isn’t true, though—if your protagonist is a little shaky but your villain absolutely shines, you can still tell a very successful story.” —Jim Butcher[3]
A murder mystery is primarily about the murderer. It is not primarily about the detective, it is not primarily about the sleuth’s sidekick, it is not even primarily about the victims. After all, it is the murderer's desire, his goal, that drove him to kill. If your detective doesn’t have a strong antagonist to butt heads with, things will get boring quickly. In a murder mystery creating a strong murderer can be especially tricky because readers (hopefully!) don’t know who the antagonist is until the very end.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of creating a strong antagonist, one your readers will love to hate. It is the battle between the protagonist and antagonist, their contest of wills, that generates the narrative drive that will mercilessly pull readers through the story.

How to Create an Interesting Murderer

Make the antagonist sympathetic: As strange as it may seem, we want readers to become emotionally connected to the antagonist. Readers need to be able to see themselves in the antagonist and, in so doing, understand her. (Or at least that's one way to go. Many of Agatha Christie's antagonists weren't in the least sympathetic and yet her stories are worldwide bestsellers.)

The antagonist provides obstacles for the protagonist: The antagonist puts obstacles in the way of the protagonist as she seeks to identify the murderer. This generates narrative drive by either providing new clues (or pseudo clues) or by resolving one clue while providing another.

The antagonist is equal but opposite: The antagonist is often very much like the protagonist. For instance, Luke and Darth Vader were both strong in The Force and both trained as Jedi Knights. One could say they both wanted what was best but they had very different ideas about what that was.

One crucial difference: There is one crucial difference between the protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist will hold a value that the antagonist doesn’t. So, for instance, the protagonist generally does something unselfish, sometimes it doesn’t even make much rational sense. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dr. Belloq was Indiana Jones’ nemesis. They were both archaeologists, they were both passionate about finding and bringing back the Ark and they both liked Marion Ravenwood. The big difference? People were more important to Indiana than relics.

5 Questions to Ask about the Murderer:

1. Who does the murderer need to kill? 

I’ve found that, usually, the first victim is the person the murderer needed to kill. But there are notable exceptions. Agatha Christie often broke with convention and used her readers' expectations against them (for example, Three Act Tragedy, The A.B.C. Murders).

2. What is the murder method?

Is the murder method, the means of death, an arcane poison? Or perhaps it's a normal poison but there is a problem figuring out how, or when, it was administered? Get creative! If at all possible make the murder method unique and extreme—which is to say, memorable. Read books, watch TV. Write down the many and various ways characters are dispatched. Mix and match. Use what you find to generate your own ideas.

3. Why does the killer need to kill? What is her motivation?

P.D. James once wrote that "All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love.”[2]

Lust. This is perhaps the oldest motive. Someone sees something they feel they can't live without. Something they covet, something they obsess over. It could be the corner office or the most beautiful girl at prom. It could be your neighbor's wife.

Lucre. Greed. The murderer wants to experience the lifestyles of the rich and famous and is willing to do anything to make that happen.

Loathing. Hatred. The desire to settle a grudge. A perceived offence. The desire to do unspeakable things to the drunk driver who mowed down your wife and children. His lawyer got him off on a technicality, so now you're taking matters into your own hands.

Love: Someone stole the heart of the person you've loved since fifth grade and then threw her away like garbage. As a result she committed suicide. Now you're out for revenge.

4. What does the murderer stand to lose, what are the stakes?

The murderer wants to prevent the detective from identifying her. If she fails in this then she will either be killed or spend the rest of her life in prison. In addition, she'll likely lose all her friends and possibly her family as well.

Of course often the stakes are more specific, more personal. It could be that the murderer is trying to save something he loves, a winery, a restaurant, or a relationship. For him, the worst thing in the world would be to lose that, but if he is revealed as the murderer the thing he loves most in the world will be ripped from him.

5. What did the killer do wrong? What did she overlook?

It seems axiomatic—at least in fiction—that every killer, no matter how intelligent or how well planned the crime, will make at least one mistake. With Agatha Christie, often the killer's mistake was trying to be clever, trying to pull the wool over the detective's eyes. But her detective turned this into a trap. For example, Poirot assumed the guise of the silly foreigner and so invited the proper English people of his day to underestimate him. His quirks, his foreignness, was his armor, his disguise.

What the killer did wrong, what she overlooked, has to be something the detective could discover, as well as something that plays to her strength. There are countless examples of this, but what comes to mind is the episode of Sherlock entitled The Great Game.

Sherlock Holmes is wonderful at noticing minutiae and bringing together diverse threads, strands of information and, from them, creating a synthesis that yields the answer (usually the 'ah-ha' clue triggers this epiphany). The graphical way the show's writers/producers/director have used to illustrate the information Sherlock notices (words suspended in air) works brilliantly and adds another dimension to the storytelling.

My point is that by working backward, looking at the killer, figuring out the motive and the murder method, and then asking where she slipped up is much easier than doing things the other way around.

The Goal: To Surprise the Reader

Never lose sight of the goal: to surprise the reader. I like it when I figure out the identity of the murderer a few paragraphs before the detective unmasks her. That way I feel clever because I've guessed right but I’m not bored.

Even more important, though, than surprising the reader is playing fair. Or, more precisely, it is important that the reader believes you’ve played fair and haven’t unfairly misled them. The reader must feel that everything hangs together and makes perfect sense.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

This is one of my favorites: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 10.

From the blurb: "At the dawn of the 20th century, Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) solves Toronto's trickiest cases with scientific insight and ingenuity in the tenth season of the award-winning mystery series."


1. How to Write a Murder Mystery, by Lee Goldberg.

2. Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James.

3. How to build a Villain, by Jim Butcher

Friday, March 24

Murder Mystery: The Victim

Murder Mystery: The Victim

Let's talk about the victim and her importance to a murder mystery. In a sense, she is the central character. Of course the victim isn't the protagonist—the detective is—but without the victim there would be no story! Today I look at what information the detective needs to uncover about the victim, the what, where, when, why and how.

The Victim Injects Passion into the Narrative

I think of the victim as the heart of the story. After all, she was killed. Murdered! That’s passionate. Someone stole her life. And it usually isn’t an act of passion, it’s planned. The murderer intended to snuff the victim out, knowing the stakes, knowing that if he was caught he would be killed or spend the rest of his life in prison. (I’ll talk more about motivation when I discuss the killer.)

Most of the time the passion comes from the victim, not the detective. Think of it: the detective is engaged in solving a bloodless puzzle, deciphering clues to identify the murderer. Myself, I like passionless puzzles! But there is no denying that emotional engagement helps build suspense.

How does the reader discover all this passion? Through the detective. Details of the victim's life are a bit like buried treasure the detective must unearth. The detective strips away layers upon layers of the victim's life, her psyche.

The relationship between the detective and the victim is peculiarly intimate and one-sided. The detective is laser focused, at least in the beginning, on the first victim, on why she was killed, on why the murderer ran such a risk.

The detective is the victim’s champion. Because of the nature of the crime, of murder, the victim no longer walks among us. Nevertheless, it is the detective who must, in a sense, bring the victim back to life until justice has been served.

Information the detective uncovers about the victim:

WHO was the victim?

What was the victim's strongest desire? How did this desire translate into a concrete goal? What were the obstacles to this goal? Where was the victim in his journey toward this goal? Had he, perhaps, denied his greatest desire all his life and then, just before death, decided to follow his dreams?

If the victim pursued his passion who would it have impacted? Whose lives would have been changed? How?

What was the victim’s profession? How did the victim earn his money? Through legal means? Illegal? Was it a profession others admire (doctor) or did it make them feel vaguely uncomfortable (used car salesmen)?

Did the victim have family? Were they married? Single? Did they have children? Were they close with their family (mother, father, siblings, uncles, aunts) or had they drifted apart? What was the victim's last Christmas like?

Perhaps most important of all, how did the other characters feel about the first victim? I've found it works best if the first victim is either loved or hated by most of the suspects. The victim could be hated by everyone except one person (as in Agatha Christie's wonderful mystery, Appointment with Death) who loves them blindly, devotedly; to such an extent one wonders: It can't possibly have been real ... can it?

WHAT about the victim motivated the crime?

It’s often easier to look at what the murderer needed than to ask what characteristics the victim had that motivated the crime, but let's try.

Was the victim wealthy? The child kills parent for her inheritance.

Was the victim hated? Did they set up a ponzi scheme that robbed folks of their life savings?

Was the victim killed to frame someone? The murderer may have had nothing against the victim, the only reason she is dead is that the killer was setting someone else up to take the fall. And so on.

WHY was the victim killed?

Knowing what about the victim motivated the crime is only half the story. The other part of the equation can only come when we know the killer's motive.

For example:
- The victim was wealthy.
- The murderer was poor.
- The murderer was in the victim's will.

So far so good, but it's still not enough. There needs to be some sort of catalyst. Perhaps the murderer's daughter needs an expensive operation or she'll die, and she needs it soon. (I'll talk more about motivation when I discuss the murderer in a later post.)

WHERE was the murder committed?

The WHERE of the murder is often closely linked to the HOW. If your victim is to die of poisoning and the poison needs to be introduced into a bitter liquid (such as coffee), then that helps narrow the field. Perhaps an intimate picnic breakfast for two in a local park is called for or (even better!) breakfast in bed.

Of course the most important thing about the crime scene is that it must create a dividing line between those who COULD have done the murder and those who could not.[1] A blizzard could have cut a group of people staying at a bed and breakfast off from the rest of the world, it could have occurred in a small English village (or, possibly, Cabot Cove Maine!), and so on.

Speaking of the crime scene, the same rules of thumb apply to this setting as to any other. Is it unique? Exaggerated? Memorable?

WHEN was the murder committed?

Generally murderers attempt to trick the detective when it comes to time of death. Corpses are frozen or draped with electric blankets, anything to mask the time of death so the murderer can set up his perfect alibi. (I'll talk about this in more detail, later, when I go over the murder method.)

HOW was the murder committed? 

This should, ideally, have something to do with both the murderer and the victim. It can’t always be done, but I like it when the murder method is matched to the reason for the crime. For instance, a billionaire buys an old, family owned, winery intending to turn it into a parking lot. The day after the purchase the billionaire is found, drowned, in a vat of merlot.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Cruising for Murder: A Myrtle Clover Cozy Mystery (Myrtle Clover Cozy Mysteries Book 10), by Elizabeth Spann Craig.

From the blurb: When “a fellow passenger disappears, Myrtle realizes she must seize the helm and find the killer...before more souls are lost.”

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again on the weekend. Till then, good writing!


1. There needs to be a dividing line between those who could have done the murder and those who couldn't, but there is a subset of mysteries—a variant of a locked room mystery (e.g., Death in Paradise)—where it seems no one had the opportunity to commit the crime. Normally, means and opportunity are known and it is the motive—the psychology of the murderer—that needs to be revealed.

Monday, March 20

How to Whip Your Prose into Shape

How to Whip Your Prose into Shape

Whenever anyone writes a post about how to improve one’s prose it’s inevitable that one’s own prose comes under scrutiny! So, let me say that I’m sure you’ll be able to find many errors in my writing. Believe me, if I didn’t use the tips I’m about to give you, my writing would be much worse. In the final analysis all we can strive to do is improve. Perfection is not only unattainable, it’s not productive.

Here are my tips:

1. Hunt for and exterminate unnecessary 'this's and 'that's.

The second sentence of my first paragraph used to be:

“So, let me say that I’m sure you’ll be able to find MANY errors in my writing.”

Compare that with:

“I’m sure you’ll be able to find MANY errors in my writing.”

The two sentences say the same thing but the second sentence says it more forcefully because it’s not as cluttered. Granted I removed more than just “that” but even just taking “that” out would have been an improvement.

2. Look for unnecessary modifiers.

There’s nothing wrong with the word “just.” Like any word, it has its place, there are circumstances in which it is needed. The same is true for “partially,” “almost,” “practically,” and so on. Saying, “Joe boarded the plane in time” expresses a different thought than, “Joe boarded the plane just in time.”

Believe me, I know how tempting it is to use modifiers. My rough drafts (and even my published posts!) are riddled with them. But do try to be merciless and take out extraneous modifiers, anything not needed to express a particular thought.

Rule of thumb: If you can remove a word and the sentence expresses the same thought, then you don’t need the word.

For instance, take the sentence:

“But do try to be merciless and strike out those modifiers which a sentence doesn’t need to express a particular thought.”

This says exactly the same thing as:

“Be merciless and strike out modifiers that don't help express a particular thought.”

The latter sentence is clearer, cleaner and much easier to read.

3. Avoid stock phrases and cliches.

For instance, above I wrote:

“Like any word, it has its place, there are circumstances in which it is needed.”

I ran a rough draft of this post through Pro Writing Aid and that program pointed out that “sometimes” communicates the same thing as “There are circumstances,” and does it more simply and cleanly. (Yes, I’m an affiliate for Pro Writing Aid, but only because I use and like the program.) So I could have rewritten it as:

“Like any word, sometimes it is needed.”

I'm not in love with that construction, it feels stilted, but it's shorter and clearer.

Another example:

“Today, I’d like to talk about what I’m going to call the ‘conflict character.’”

This sentence would be clearer as:

“Today, I’d like to talk about what I will call the ‘conflict character.’”

It’s a small change, but I like the shorter, clearer, sentence.

Pro Writing Aid helped me spot the above, but I feel it's only fair to note that sometimes the program gets it wrong. It suggested that this sentence:

“I’m going to use “antagonist” and “murderer” interchangeably except where I think it might cause confusion.”

be replaced with this sentence:

“I will use “antagonist” and “murderer” except where I think it might cause confusion.”

As you can see the latter sentence does not express the same thought as the former!

4. Compare your writing to the writing of authors you admire.

The writers whose prose I most admire are: Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King.

Pro Writing Aid is great but, like all programs of its type, the statistics it displays are meaningless without context. So I let my favorite authors provide context!

Let me give you an example. I just ran my last post, Writing a Murder Mystery: The Conflict Character, through ProWritingAid. Then I ran a portion of Stephen King’s book, On Writing, through the program (I made sure the excerpts contained about the same number of words).

  • The program suggests that I make 27 readability enhancements and that Stephen King needs to make 37 readability enhancements! lol
  • The program let me know that I have 10 passive verbs but Stephen King had 16 passive verbs.
  • The program let me know that I have 4 hidden verbs while Stephen King had ... none!

(BTW, ProWritingAid made many more than these three observations, I’m just giving you the gist of it.)

The final observation was the one that yielded paydirt. I’ve compared my work against Stephen King’s a number of times and the above pattern holds. Stephen King does not hide verbs while I salt them away like a squirrel hides nuts.

So, what is a hidden verb? A hidden verb is a verb that is turned into a noun. For instance, my article had the following hidden verbs: “a portion of,” (used twice) and “a collection of” (used twice).

Here’s one of my sentences in which I salted away a hidden verb:

“The second kind of conflict is conflict that only lasts for A PORTION OF the story.”

Here’s my revision:

“The second kind of conflict only lasts for part of the story.”

Much better!

How can you tell whether hidden verbs have wormed their way into your prose? I run my writing through Pro Writing Aid and it highlights these phrases! But another way of spotting them is to look for the following word endings: -mend, -tion, -sion, and -ance. Also, scrutinize words that link with words such as: “achieve, effect, give, have, make, reach, and take.”

This really only scratches the surface of ways to improve one's prose. If you'd like me to write more about this subject, let me know in the comments! :-)

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Elements of Style Kindle Edition, by William Strunk Jr.

This is a classic! From the blurb: “The Elements of Style ... is the best-known, most influential prescriptive treatment of English grammar and usage...” I have Elements on my writing shelf snuggled up to Stephen King’s On Writing.

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again on Wednesday. Till then, good writing!


1. I'm an affiliate for Pro Writing Aid, but only because the program has helped me become a better writer. I would not endorse a product I didn't use.

Sunday, March 19

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Conflict Character

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Conflict Character

Today, I’d like to talk about what I’m going to call the ‘conflict character.’

As I’ve mentioned, the antagonist as antagonist doesn’t come ‘on-screen’ until the end of the story when the detective reveals the murderer’s identity to the reader.

This is one of the quirky characteristics of murder mysteries: for most of the story no one knows which of your characters is the criminal, not until the end of the story. (I’m going to use “antagonist” and “murderer” interchangeably except where I think it might cause confusion.)

In, say, an action/adventure story the reader knows who the antagonist is, at least in general terms. For example, in Raiders of the Lost Ark we knew from the opening sequence that Indiana Jones’ nemesis was René Belloq.

This is not the case in a murder mystery. Yes, the detective’s goals and the murderer’s goals are mutually exclusive, but since the reader can’t know who the murderer is before the big reveal the detective often has another character—I’m calling this character the conflict character—to butt heads with. (Note: There can be more than one conflict character.)

Conflict and the Murder Mystery

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of conflict—and this applies to any story, not just murder mysteries: There is conflict that spans the entire arc of the story (i.e., the main arc) and conflict that spans a minor arc (for instance, the B-story, C-story, etc.).

The first kind of conflict lasts for the entire story and is often between the detective and her sidekick; I go into this further, below.

The second kind of conflict is conflict that only lasts for a portion of the story. This portion could be a portion of a scene, a sequence of scenes, or the entire B-story/C-story/D-story, etc.

I’ve covered the conflict within a scene elsewhere (see: Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive) so I won’t go into that here. What follows has to do with conflict that comes from arcs such as the B-story, C-story, etc.

How many conflict filled arcs are needed depends, at least in part, on how many murders there are: the more murders, the more suspects. For instance, in a show like Midsomer Murders where 3 or 4 people die, there needs to be a larger initial character pool than in a show like Murdoch Mysteries where, often, only one or two people die.

An Example of Conflict: Murdoch Mysteries Season 10, Episode 17

In the main arc, the spine of the story, Murdoch teams up with the Captain to investigate the murder of an older derby skater, a person who coached girls, girls who later formed an aggressive derby team. That is the first major event. The second (usually either a murder or some sort of setback) is the victim’s daughter being knee-capped and crippled for life.

In this episode the Captain acts as Murdoch’s sidekick. Murdoch’s goal is to find the killer as well as the girl’s assailant. He hopes that even if the girl’s assailant isn’t the killer it will help him identify the killer. But there is no quarrel between Murdoch and the Captain. There is a certain gentle push and pull but nothing remotely aggressive.

That’s the main arc. The two sub-arcs are, first, Dr. Julia Ogden and Rebecca James’ rivalry with the derby girls (there is a minor arc having to do with their good-natured rivalry with each other over who is the better skater). The second arc has to do with the conflict between George and his new girlfriend, the reporter Louise Cherry.

Who are the conflict characters? Which character generate conflict? I would say that the closest think to a conflict character is the derby team collectively. Here it’s not so much a person as it is a collection of people/characters. George’s conflict with Louise is a one-on-one conflict (since everyone else seems to love her!) while the conflict with the derby girls is between them and everyone else!

What Sort of Characters Are Conflict Characters?

Let’s talk about character roles. The conflict character could be the murderer, but most often isn’t. The conflict character could be a scapegoat, it could be a rival detective or even the detective’s sidekick.

In what follows I’m going to explore each of these possibilities (see below) as well as give examples to illustrate what I’m saying.

  • The scapegoat as a conflict character.
  • A rival detective (or simply a rival) as a conflict character.
  • The detective’s helper/foil/sidekick as a conflict character.

I'll cover each of these in turn.

The Scapegoat as a Conflict Character

Let’s look at Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House. (Note: In what follows I draw from the television adaptation starring David Suchet.) This conflict spans most of the story and is part of the main arc.

A-Story: The Murder

--- Major
Detective: Hercule Poirot
Detective’s foil/Watson/sidekick/comic relief: Captain Hastings
Murderer: Magdala 'Nick' Buckley
Victim: Maggie Buckley
Scapegoat: Freddy Rice (Conflict character)

--- Minor
Detective’s ally: Miss Lemon
Police representative/ally: Chief Inspector Japp.

Note: Client lies to Poirot.

B-Story: The Relationship with Michael Seton

This is the red herring.

C-story: Drugs

Commander George Challenger: Drug dealer and transporter

D-story: Will/Forgery

Bert & Milly Croft: Forgers (antagonists of C-story)

Conflict. As indicated, Freddy Rice is the conflict character. From the first time she comes on-stage she pushes back against Nick’s claims. The first time we meet her she calls Nick the most brazen liar but then softens this by saying she doesn’t mean it as a criticism. She views Nick’s ability to lie as a gift. Freddy claims Nick is lying about the brakes on her car being sabotaged. But Freddy doesn’t stop there. At various parts of the story Freddy contradicts what Nick says.

Scandalous. For that time (the novel was published in 1932) Freddy was a scandalous character. She was married and yet carrying on a public affair with her lover, Jim Lazarus. And she is addicted to cocaine. As such, Freddy is not an especially sympathetic character! Just what one wants in a scapegoat.

A Rival Detective (or Simply a Rival) as a Conflict Character

Let’s stay with the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, but this time let’s take a look at Murder on the Links. Again, I’m going to use the TV adaptation of the story starring David Suchet.

A-Story: The Murder

Detective: Hercule Poirot
Foil: Captain Hastings
Murderers: Madame Daubreuil (Mastermind),  Georges Conneau/Paul Renauld (22 years ago), Marthe Daubreuil (present day).
Victim: Paul Renauld
Scapegoats: Jack Renauld & Bella Duveen
Police representative: Giraud of the Sûreté (Conflict character).

Note: Client lies to Poirot.

B-Story: The Relationships between Jack Renauld, Bella Duveen and Marthe Daubreuil

Jack Renauld and Bella Duveen were a couple until Jack left Bella for Marthe Daubreuil.

C-story: The relationship between Captain Hastings and Bella Duveen.

Captain Hastings falls in love with Bella Duveen, but fears she is still in love with Jack Renauld and has murdered Paul Renauld. But, hey, every relationship has its problems!

Although (as in any murder mystery) there is conflict between each character and the detective, the main source of story conflict (the A-story/arc) is between Poirot and Giraud. Both men consider themselves the greatest detective alive so there was bound to be a clash. Giraud, though, is a condescending bully who lacks Poirot’s grasp of order and method. Events come to a head when Giraud arrests Jack Renauld for the murder of his father.

The Detective's Helper as a Conflict Character

When the detective's helper is the conflict character the sidekick is usually somewhat bumbling, the detective somewhat acerbic, we see that they both have reasons for how they feel but they’re both likable, good and fair.

I’ve already gone over an example of this, above, but let’s talk about Peril at End House. Here Poirot clashes with Hastings over the latter’s fanaticism over golf—he would much rather golf than help Poirot with the case—and this irks Poirot.

Also, Poirot tells Hastings that his instincts about who is a good guy are so bad that if Hastings thinks a certain person is beyond reproach Poirot thinks they’re probably guilty of something! Hastings is, of course, offended. These minor clashes continue throughout the story.

Long-Term Conflict Generated by the Detective's Love Interest

A story arc is the story's spine. It has to do with the characters, their goals, and the obstacles each encounters. In a television series the spine generally stretches over an entire season while the myth arc spans an entire series (not all series have coherent myth arcs, and that's fine; it's not necessary).

In a murder mystery there are often two spines. One spine is what you would expect, the protagonist has the goal of discovering the identity of the antagonist/murderer and the antagonist/murderer has the goal of not being caught (or perhaps of doing whatever it takes not to be caught). As I've mentioned, it can be difficult to infuse conflict into this arc because the identity of the murderer is unknown.

The other spine, though, often focuses on the protagonist's romantic interest. This story arc can generate conflict. While each episode will contain minimal conflict, when taken as a whole, generous amounts of conflict are supplied by the season-long romantic arc.

For example, in Death in Paradise one story arc had to do with Humphrey engaging in what he thought would be a whirlwind romance with a friend on vacation but which turned into something deeper for both of them. I won't describe the story arc, but it has the traditional setup: each character has a goal and each goal is mutually exclusive. While each of them seems like a very nice person, they are each other's antagonist. It's effective.

I think the TV show Supernatural (I'm currently addicted to it!) is the most successful at using both a seasonal story arc and its myth arc to generate conflict. Each season the brother's are in conflict over something. Further, this familial conflict is directly tied into the threat they're trying to save the world from (which, in turn, is tied into the whole myth arc about why they're doing this in the first place).

Why does this work? Because, hey, they're brothers! It's realistic. They love each other, would die for each other, but they can drive one another nuts! They can have epic fights. The conflict comes across as natural. (I've mentioned Supernatural because, while not strictly speaking a mystery, it does include that element.)

* * *

We see that because the identity of the antagonist isn’t revealed until the end of the story, conflict in a murder mystery is often handled differently from other kinds of stories. That is, the other main characters, and even minor characters, help stoke conflict and keep the antagonistic fires burning. And of course the antagonist helps out by providing one or more murders for our intrepid detective to investigate.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Being Poirot. This is an amazing documentary for fans (like me!) of Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

From the blurb: “As twenty five years of playing one of television's greatest icons come to an end David Suchet attempts to unravel the mysterious appeal of the great detective Hercule Poirot - and reveals what it has been like to play one of fiction's most enduring and enigmatic creations. In this entertaining and revealing documentary Suchet allows the camera crew to follow him as he prepares for the emotional final days' filming on set. Suchet returns to Agatha Christie's Summer home in Devon, where he first met the author's family after taking on the role a quarter of a century ago, and travels to Belgium as he attempts to find Poirot's roots and discover what the Belgians think of one of their most famous sons.”

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again on Monday. Till then, good writing!


1. Except when it isn't! In a murder mystery there are exceptions to this rule but they are so rare I'm not going to talk about them except to mention their existence. Example: The 10 season of Murdoch Mysteries. It seems as though George Crabtree's decision between Louise Cherry and Nina Bloom.

Wednesday, March 15

How to Write a Kickass Restaurant Review

How to Write a Kickass Restaurant Review

I love food. No seriously. I LOVE food. Any kind of food, from the greasiest french fries to the most healthy quinoa-stuffed salad. And I’ve eaten it all: fried intestine, blood pudding, even a rooster’s private bits.[1]

Recently I lost a ton of weight and have become completely and utterly food obsessed. They say thin people have more taste buds—like their body is panicking, saying: Look at all the yummy food, wouldn't it taste AMAZING?! You know you want to eat it, yes, you know you do. Yes, that’s right, go closer, go to it ...

Anyway, I thought one way to combine my two favorite things—writing and eating—would be to visit a few of the funky restaurants in my area, eat something that makes my mouth water and then write a review.

So, next question: How does one write a review? I mean, not JUST a review, I’m talking about an amazing, fantastic review, one that makes you, the reader, feel as though you’re there with the writer, sitting at the table, taking in the ambiance, scrutinizing the service, tasting the dishes.

True, I published an article about how to write a restaurant review not too long ago (creatively titled: How to Write a Restaurant Review) but I didn’t feel as though I’d given enough ... call it ‘actionable’ advice. That post gave more of a general overview of the topic, one that focused on the norms food journalists live by, this one is more contemporary, more focused on the nuts and bolts of writing a review. It’s more gorilla journalist than traditional journalist. Make sense? No?! Ah well, here we go ...

How to Review Food

What does a food reviewer do? What’s expected of them? I came across this sentence in an article I read while researching this post:

“The job of a food reviewer is to accurately convey the taste, texture, smell, and presentation of a restaurant's food.”[2]

I thought that was such a specific, informative answer I wanted to give it verbatim. Because we’re not just reviewing the dishes we’re eating, we’re judging the entire experience: the food, the atmosphere, the service and one’s general impression of the restaurant.

Let’s do this in parts. First, I’ll talk about the importance of researching the restaurant. Who owns the restaurant, does it have an interesting history? Who is the head chef? What was the atmosphere like? Were the waitstaff helpful and friendly, and so on. Second, I’ll focus on the meal itself.

1. The Background

In fiction writing we often need to give background information but don’t want to give the reader an information dump. That is, we don't want the reader to feel overwhelmed by information they couldn’t care less about but which the writer feels they need to know in order to appreciate what’s going to happen in the scene.

This sort of background information is a bit different, but we must still be careful not to overload the reader. Although the history, location, ownership and philosophy of a restaurant are important parts of the overall experience, it is a good idea to only share those parts which are unique and specific lest we bore our readers.

The Restaurant

What is the history of the restaurant? How long has the building been in existence? What sort of businesses have been there (only mention this if you think readers will find it interesting, for instance if it’s a historic building.).

How long has the restaurant been open? What kind of restaurant is it, what is it trying to achieve? Is it Chinese or Indian or Japanese? Is it fusion? And so on.

What is the price of the average meal? Is the restaurant considered a good value, moderately expensive or pricey? Is it casual or fine dining? Is there a dress code? How were your fellow diners dressed? Should one make a reservation? If so, how far in advance?

What kind of area is the restaurant is in? Are there any local landmarks? Is it someplace a tourist might want to take a stroll after dinner? Or is it the kind of place you wouldn’t want to take your kids after dark? How was parking?

Does the restaurant have a specialty? Are they known for a particular kind of cuisine or for, say, their desserts? Their seafood? I had dinner at a particular restaurant a few times mostly because the restaurant served the most divine cocktails!

Did it seem as though your fellow diners were enjoying their food? Was it loud? Raucous? Quiet? Was it family friendly?

How was the service? Don’t just say it was good or bad. Ask yourself, “Why?” If the service was great, what was great about it? Give details. Was it difficult to get the attention of a server? Was your water glass kept full? Did your server ask how your meal was? Were the servers able to give you recommendations when asked? Was the staff charming and stylish? How was the server dressed? Was he or she wearing a uniform? Jeans and t-shirt? Smart black dress or pants and shirt? Most importantly: Did what the server wear match the venue?

The Owner

Who owns the restaurant? Have they owned previous restaurants? If so, were they successful? Is this restaurant similar to the rest or different? What are the owners major culinary influences? Why did he  open this restaurant as opposed to another?

The Head Chef

Who is the head chef? Where did she study? Where has she worked before, what kind of restaurants and for how long? What are her major influences? What is her style of cooking? What is her signature dish? Has she written a cookbook?

Try to find one unusual and interesting, one memorable, thing about the head chef. For example, were they the youngest chef to graduate from their culinary school? Were they the oldest? What is their signature dish?

One more thing about background ...

When trying to decide what information to include about background, only talk about something you think will interest the reader. After all, the main focus of the review is the food.

Ask yourself whether a particular tidbit of information about the restaurant, etc., is MEMORABLE. Is it exaggerated, unusual, vaguely scandalous? I’m not suggesting you veer into tabloid sensationalism, but you don’t want to put readers to sleep. This isn’t a history paper, it’s a review. You want to give the reader enough information to decide whether they will enjoy eating at this restaurant. If something isn't relevant to that question think twice before including it. Remember, if a certain piece of information bores the pants off you, your reader will probably feel like that times infinity!

2. Your Meal

What should you order? Generally, the advice is to order a drink, an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. If the restaurant has a specialty or a signature dish, order that.

Okay, so, that's (more or less) WHAT you should order, but how does one make one's review informative AND engaging?

Make it Colorful

Don’t put your readers to sleep! This is easier said than done but here are a few tips:

a. PROMISE the reader something, either an interesting story or a surprise. For example: “I’ve found the best cinnamon buns in existence!” That’s (kinda, sorta) a promise. (By the way, I am a lifelong connoisseur of cinnamon buns. I’ve eaten just about every kind. This recipe (Overnight Cinnamon Rolls, by Alton Brown) made the best cinnamon buns I’ve ever had! It’s easy. Make it, you will not be disappointed!)

You could also recount something interesting, unique, unusual that happened to you at the restaurant. Perhaps you interviewed the chef or something amusing occurred.

b. Give the reader an INTERESTING FACT. For example, “This is the owner’s second restaurant. The first one, in Greenland, was carved from a single sheet of ice!”

c. Describe a memorable aspect of the AMBIANCE, good or bad. Did it have an amazing view or was there a suspicious odor wafting from the kitchen? Use details that aren’t obvious. Does it have arched skylights? The perfect lighting for taking pictures of your food? Is it “industrial inspired”? [4]

The Review Itself:

The first sentence. More than anything a review is a piece of writing and, as is true for any kind of writing, we want to hook the reader with our first sentence.

Only describe 3-5 dishes. A great way to do this is go out for dinner with friends and sample each of their dishes. Let’s say you taste more than 3-5 dishes, what then? Only talk about dishes you had a strong reaction to, whether for good or ill.

Describe how the food was presented. How did the food look when it arrived? Was the dish/plate clean and beautiful or messy and tired? How did the presentation of the dish make you feel? Excited? Hungry? Did you feel pampered and special or did you feel like you were back home having dinner with mom and pops? How you felt, does it match the restaurant? When I go to a fine dining establishment I want to feel pampered but when I go to a place that advertises itself as 'homestyle' I expect a more casual experience.

How did the food taste? Describe it, be colorful. Engage all your senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch (mouthfeel). Also, there are (generally speaking) five tastes: Sweetness, Sourness, Saltiness, Bitterness and Umami. Don’t be afraid of using adjectives—or even the odd adverb—when you communicate your taste experience.

Also, was the food spicy? Talk about what memories of food it evoked. What was the texture like? Did the food melt in your mouth? Was the food juicy and tender or chewy and tough? Were the noodles gooey or dry? Were there a variety of textures? Was something soft inside yet crunchy outside? How did the textures work together?

Talk about the complexity of the food. Talk about the variety of flavors. Was it better than the sum of its parts? How did the flavors come together?

Be up front about your biases if they are relevant. For instance, if you are reviewing a seafood restaurant but you hate seafood, mention it!

Give your opinion but don’t be opinionated. Give your own opinion of the restaurant at the end of the review. If you are inclined to review it negatively, consider going back and giving it a second try.

Write with Attitude. Be Unique

You want this restaurant to stand out and feel unique. Give specific details. For example,

“Danny Meyer’s flagship restaurant has moved to a new multilevel space with dramatically lit booths, cozy nooks, and a gorgeous bar.”[3]
“The original restaurant, on Sixteenth Street, was vaguely Tuscan, vaguely new American, and extremely hospitable. These were the kind of people who learned your name, then remarked on your lovely brooch while giving you an extra-generous pour of Barolo. Carmen Quagliata, the executive chef since 2007, has a penchant for elevated comfort food that befits the restaurant’s polished good vibes, and his cooking gets a grand showcase in the new multilevel space, spiffed up with dramatically lit booths, cozy nooks, and a gorgeous, towering front bar in the model of Gramercy Tavern.”[3]

A rule of thumb: Try to give at least one detail, one specific detail, for every aspect of your review.

One Last Thing

Remember, your review should not be about whether you liked something, it should be about giving readers the information they need to decide whether they would like it.

Tips from Zagat

Yes, that Zagat, the folks from whom even a single star is a very big deal! Here’s a short video they made.[4] It’s under three minutes long. :-)

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Memoir, Recipes, and More, by Dianne Jacob.

From Anthony Bourdain: "A concise, illustrative, and eminently useful guide to the nuts and bolts of professional food writing."


1. It was at a friend’s family’s get together and his grandpa—a withered Chinese gentleman who looked a million years old, could jog five miles without breaking a sweat and had forgotten more than I’ll ever know—ordered the food. My friend called the dining experience “old school.”

2. How to Write a Food Review.

3. Union Square Café Lives On[], by Shauna Lyon. The New Yorker. (For more excellent reviews see: Tables for Two)

4. How To: Write a Good Review.

Tuesday, March 14

How Murder Mysteries Differ from Other Kinds of Stories

How Murder Mysteries Differ from Other Kinds of Stories

I’ve been writing about murder mysteries quite a bit lately. I PROMISE I’ll write about something else for the next post! (If you’d like me to talk about a particular topic please let me know! Leave a comment, tweet me at @woodwardkaren or send an email. I would love to hear from you!)

High Stakes & High Tension

The following is true regardless of genre: Your story should have high stakes and lots of tension/conflict. But exactly how you cash this out in a murder mystery presents it’s own unique challenges.

High Stakes

The stakes need to be high for both the detective and the murderer; they must both stand to either gain and lose a lot. The same with the murderer. Let’s cash this out.


First, there’s the obvious: The detective’s goal is to identify the murderer just as the murderer’s goal is to evade detection. Notice that if the detective achieves his goal the murderer can’t and vice versa. That’s the structure we’re looking for. If the detective succeeds the murderer will, at the very least, go to jail. If the detective fails, his reputation will be in tatters, perhaps he’ll even lose his job.

But there are less obvious stakes. The detective might own his own business and solve puzzles on the side. Perhaps he has developed a reputation for solving murders that stump the police. How would his business fare if his customers came to see him as incompetent?

Or it could be that some suspicion has been cast on the detective. He must solve the crime to clear his name. If, for instance, the detective owned a bakery and the victim was killed with poison, that would NOT be good for business!

Or it could be that the detective is a lawyer. He needs to exonerate his client (who happens to be his aunt’s favorite nephew) and the only way to do that is by identifying the real murderer. If he fails Aunt Petunia will hate him forever and he’ll lose most of his clients!

There are MANY possibilities.


Again, there’s the obvious: The murderer’s goal is to evade detection, to commit, as the saying goes, the perfect murder. If he fails, then he could be killed or spend the rest of his life in prison.

But there are less obvious stakes. Even if the murderer is never sent to prison he could lose everyone and everything he cares about: his job, his wife, his kids, his espresso maker, not to mention the cute Pomeranian that licks his toes in the morning. Life, as he knows it, would be over.

It’s important to mention the stakes for both the protagonist and antagonist at the pinch points, to remind the reader of what the detective is up against, how desperate the murderer is, the lengths to which she will go.

High Tension

As we have seen, the detective has a goal as does the murderer. The detective wants to identify the murderer by way of investigating clues. The murderer wants to remain free!

High stakes help CREATE high tension. How? High stakes drive characters to do things that take them out—way out!—of their comfort range. It is the push and pull between characters, especially between antagonist and protagonist, that drives a story forward.

Every scene, no matter who is in it, has two important characters.[1] These characters are working toward different clearly defined goals that are mutually exclusive. If one character achieves his goal then the other character cannot and vice versa. Sometimes these two characters will be the protagonist and antagonist (or, in our case, the detective and murderer), but not always. In fact, in a murder mystery, a reader won’t be able to tell whether the person in the scene with the detective is the murderer! In that respect, murder mysteries really are quite different from other genres: readers don’t even know who the antagonist is until the very end!

Clear as mud? Let me give you an example. Let’s say our detective wants to get a witness, Mrs. Lawson, to tell him what she saw the night of the murder. The main character in the scene is the detective and the character opposing him is Mrs. Lawson. The detective has to find out WHY Mrs. Lawson doesn’t want to tell him what she saw—is she afraid or is she covering for someone she knows?—and convince her to do something she doesn’t want to do. If he does, he achieves his goal. If not, he loses.

Is Mrs. Lawson the murderer? Probably not but who knows. In an Agatha Christie murder mystery the less suspicious someone is the greater the likelihood they’re the murderer!

It is the reader’s knowledge of what the main characters in any specific scene have to gain and lose that pulls the reader through it. Will the detective (or perhaps the detective’s helper) get the clue they need to solve the next part of the case, the next piece of the puzzle? Ultimately, they will have to face their darkest fears to achieve their goals.

One thing that’s different about mystery stories in general (I’m including thrillers in this category) is that the protagonist—and usually the reader—doesn’t know who the murderer is. Perhaps we have a smattering of scenes where we see the murderer anonymously do a number of bad things, or plan to do a number of bad things, but we don’t know who this person is until the end. So the antagonists we have are going to be the cranky boss, the obnoxious co-worker, even the weather!

For example, the detective and his sidekick must visit someone who is in the hospital, scheduled to have a risky operation, and they need to question her. But there’s a storm brewing. Then it breaks, turns the roads to mud and the sleuth’s car gets stuck. And so on. Each scene must have something who ACTS as an antagonist, something that opposes the goal of the main character in that scene. The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person though. In this example it was the storm. More broadly, the antagonist can be a person, place, thing, idea—it can be the main character themselves! I don’t know about you but I’ve sabotaged myself a time or three.

Reader Involvement

Finally, a murder mystery involves the reader in a unique way. Sure, ANY kind of story involves the reader but in a murder mystery the reader doesn’t know who the antagonist is and is ACTIVELY engaged in trying to guess their identity. In a sense, the writer is playing a guessing game with the reader (for more about books that play games see: How To Write A 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Story.)


I've received some wonderful feedback regarding the detective's stakes. Adaddinsane mentioned that in many excellent murder mysteries the stakes for the detective are low. For instance, this is true in many of Agatha Christie's mysteries and she is one of the best selling novelists of all time!

I've noticed this tendency toward low stakes as well and wrestled with it. Personally (and this could just be my own preference) I like it when the sleuth has something personal riding on the outcome. It could be something humorous (an ill-advised bet he's made) or it could be something more substantial (the failure of his business). I find this adds more conflict, more tension, and helps pull me through the book.

K.M. Idamari (over on Google+) mentioned that Murder Mysteries have a social dimension. The murder breaks the rules of society. Identifying the murderer is about writing a wrong, it's about justice.

Very true! Yes, this is something I meant to speak about then it slipped my mind. Thank you!!

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

An Autobiography, by Agatha Christie.

Read about Agatha Christie's life in her own words. From an Amazon reviewer: "Agatha Christie's autobiography will keep the reader interested in knowing a little bit more about her life as wife, mother, and author."


1. I say “characters” but these needn’t be people. For instance, a tornado could be an antagonist. However in the case of a murder mystery the antagonist does have to be an agent since they have to try and avoid detection.

Sunday, March 12

The Structure of a Murder Mystery in 5 Acts

The Structure of a Murder Mystery in 5 Acts

What follows is a structure—one-among-many—a murder mystery could have. If you would like to read about a general story structure head over here: The Structure of a Great Story: How to Write a Suspenseful Tale!

Below, I’ve broken a murder mystery into six main events stretched over five acts.

A Murder Mystery in Six Events

1. A Crime
2. 1st Murder
3. Crime solved
4. 2nd Murder
5. Sleuth’s Trap
6. Reveal & Wrap Up

I'll discuss each of these in more detail in what follows.

Again, I want to stress that I’m not saying this is how all murder mysteries are structured, simply that this is one way a murder mystery could be structured.

A Murder Mystery in Five Acts

Act One: The Crime, Murderer Introduced and the 1st Body Found

Opens with: The Crime.

The Crime. In the first act a crime occurs and is the inciting incident for that act (not the main story). The crime is not the first murder. It could be blackmail, common assault, burglary, vandalism, etc. Your detective could investigate this crime or someone else might. For instance, if your detective works as a homicide detective this would be outside her purview. Or if your detective runs a bake shop this particular crime might involve those close to her, but not involve her directly.[1]

The Murderer is introduced. The murderer doesn’t have to be introduced in Act One, but I think it’s a good idea. If you don’t introduce the murderer here try to at least have one or more of your characters mention him or her in conversation.

The 1st Body. At the end of Act One we have the Inciting Incident for the main arc of the story: The first body is discovered. This event draws the detective into the story.

Close with: Finding the 1st body.

Act Two: Detective Introduced and Led Astray

Opens with: The detective. Perhaps the detective is at the crime scene or at the morgue. Generally I think it works best if the detective is introduced with the victim since it was the victim who, in a sense, called him into the story. It is the victim the detective seeks justice for.

Detective Introduced. The detective and her sidekick/helper are introduced and interview the suspects. They will likely also talk to one or two experts over the course of the story.

Led Astray. Initially, the murder leads the detective astray. Gives them a red herring. As a result of this, the murderer gains the upper hand. (The detective likely won't realize this is the case until after the second body is found.)

2nd body found. The detective feels he is partially responsible for this person’s death. Perhaps he suspected this person wasn’t telling him everything but he didn’t press her because she seemed frail and elderly, or perhaps the sleuth and this person had a relationship.

Closes with: The second body is discovered.

Act Three: Crime Solved and the Detective Knows Who the Killer Is

Begins with: The detective at the crime scene or in the morgue. He discusses with his helper/sidekick how the death changes things, his current theory of the crime, and so on. This is a low point for the detective. The murderer has the upper hand.

New information sets the sleuth on the right track. We’re at the midpoint now and this storyline should resolve and loop back into your main arc. This will have the effect of giving the detective a major revelation into either the circumstances of the first murder or the murderer himself/herself. At this point the detective gets information that gives him a whole new perspective on the case.

Crime Solved. The detective uses the information, his increased knowledge, to solve the initial crime. The detective is back on his game and the murderer is nervous.

Detectives figures out the identity of the murderer. Detectives figures out the identity of the murderer. This act ends with the detective at a high point. He has solved the initial crime and this resolution combined with something his sidekick says (it doesn't have to be this, though it often is), allows him to identify the murderer. The detective also, often, knows how the murderer pulled it off, he just doesn't have any proof.

Ends with: The detective solving the crime.

Act Four: Third Body Found; Sleuth Lays a Trap for the Killer; The Reveal

Begins with: The sleuth puts into action a plan to trap the killer.

Act Four begins with a sequel. We need to all be on the same page. The sleuth is about to keep something from Watson, which means he’s going to keep something from the reader. We need to be sure not to trick the reader, not to keep anything back. All the clues need to be on the table at this point.

The Third ‘Murder.’ There really is no third murder. This is a trap the detective lays for the killer. Perhaps the murderer wants to kill the sleuth and the sleuth fakes his death. Perhaps the sleuth gets an accomplice to blackmail the killer and the killer takes the bait and appears to murder the blackmailer (or perhaps the murderer is apprehended before he or she can do the deed; if this is the case then it also serves as The Reveal).

The Reveal. The murderer thinks he’s in the clear, he’s gotten away with it. Everyone is in the library sipping brandy and pulling a long face. The detective says, “Well, at least I now know who committed the crimes.” The real killer thinks the detective is a fool and plays along.

The detective begins to lay out all the clues, explaining things as though he is still fooled by the murderer. Then he explains why the person the murderer was framing couldn’t have done it.

This makes everyone nervous. What is the detective talking about? What he’s suggesting is impossible! We know the victims were murdered, but the detective has ruled everyone out!

Then the detective says: No. The killer was clever, yes, but he was up against me, the great one! He never had a chance. The detective then goes on to explain what the real killer's plan was, what his motives where and how he did what he did.

The killer now feels like a cornered animal, fighting for its life. He passionately denies everything. "No, this is impossible! This is outrageous!"

But then comes the final detail, the final twist. The third victim isn’t dead! It had been a trap all along! The killer, panicked, springs up ready to run but is overpowered by the detective’s helper and the rest of the suspects.

Ends with: The reveal. The detective reveals the killers identity.

Act Five: The Wrap Up

Begins with: The detective explains how he discovered the identity of the murderer and ties up all the loose ends.

Finish explaining the clues. The first part of the wrap up deals with any unresolved details, any unanswered questions from the reveal. You can take a bit of time here.

Resolve the relationship arcs. The second part of the wrap up deals with relationship arcs, resolving them and tying them off. Make sure the detective and his sidekick, their conflict, is resolved right before the end.

Ends with: The detective, having wrapped up all the relationship arcs, goes back to his ordinary life.

* * *

I want to stress again that this is just one of thousands of possibilities for how you could structure a murder mystery.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Witness for the Prosecution, by Agatha Christie.

This is, hands down, one of the best plotted stories I have ever read! If you’ve never seen it before—I believe it started out life as a play—read it! Or, if you like, watch the 1957 movie of the same name. Don’t let anyone tell you the ending, though! It’s one of the best endings of a mystery story, ever!

From the blurb: “When wealthy spinster Emily French is found murdered, suspicion falls on Leonard Vole, the man to whom she hastily bequeathed her riches before she died.”

That’s it! I have another post nearly finished, one that picks up some of these same themes. In the meantime, good writing! :-)


1. Above, I suggested beginning your murder mystery with a run-of-the-mill crime but there's another way to approach this, a way that can increase the stakes and start things off with spine-tingling excitement: Show the murder happening. The body, though, is still found at the end of the first act.

Wednesday, March 8

Murdoch Mysteries: A Specific Structure in Six Acts

Murdoch Mysteries: A Specific Structure in Six Acts

Before we talk about the general structure of a Murdoch Mystery let's look at the specific structure on one murdoch mystery. I want to pay special attention to how finding a body is used as a twist—something that spins the story off in another direction—right at the end of an act.

Number of Murders

The overwhelming majority of episodes opens with either finding a body or a murder being committed. Further, most (but by no means all) episodes have more than one murder.

What follows is loosely based on an episode of Murdoch Mysteries—“This One Goes to Eleven” from season 3, episode 6[link].  I haven’t looked at the script but it seems to me that this episode is most easily split up into 6 acts. Let’s take a look at the main points.

As you can see, "This One Goes to Eleven" has a whopping 4 murders and 5 bodies! That's a bit on the high side for a Murdoch Mystery but I thought this episode nicely illustrated how to end an act with a bang. Or, rather, with a twist that will hopefully keep the viewer watching.

This One Goes to Eleven, Season 3 Episode 6

Act One (1%)

The Inciting Incident: This event makes the change in the world that gets the story going. Often the Inciting Incident is a murder but in this episode it was the theft of Mrs. Sally Pendrick’s painting: "Bathsheba at her Toilet," by Rembrandt. (This was the first episode featuring Pendrick.)

The painting is stolen and a body is found in the elevator. No one can figure out how the murdering thieves pulled off the crime.

End of Act One: First body is found and it’s clear the detective is on the case.

Act Two (17%)

Doctor Julia Ogden examines the body at the crime scene.

Constable George Crabtree discovers how the murdering thieves might have gotten away.

Murdoch talks to Inspector Thomas Brackenreid at the police station about the case and they discuss who could be involved.

Brackenreid and Murdoch talk to an art expert (who also happens to be the murderer).

Murdoch interviews Mr. James Pendrick in the man’s office.

Murdoch meets Mrs. Pendrick (Mrs. Pendrick is the relationship character for this episode). Murdoch is very embarrassed because she is posing, nude, for a painting.

Murdoch meets Julia in the morgue and she gives Murdoch information about the body.

Murdoch revisits crime scene. He’s figured out how the painting was stolen and the guard murdered.

End of Act Two: Two more bodies are found seemingly murdered in the same way as the first.

Act Three (34%)

Julia Ogden is in the morgue examining the new bodies and gives Murdoch her report.

George Crabtree is in Murdoch’s office. He reports on what constables have found at the crime scene. Then George (as he does) goes on and on about the grisly nature of the crimes. Murdoch finds out the thieves are from Chicago.

Murdoch reports to Brackenreid about the thieves. He has discovered their identities.

Murdoch talks to Pendrick about the insurance policy and why he insured it for such an amount. Pendrick says that he, unlike his wife, sees art as an investment.

Murdoch searches for painter Luca Carducci, the fellow Murdoch is using as an art expert (Carducci is also the killer) and so goes to the place where artists hang out in Toronto. When Murdoch arrives he finds that Mrs. Pendrick is already there.

Mrs. Pendrick gifts Murdoch her painting.

Back at the station, Murdoch, Brackenreid and George Crabtree stand around the painting to figure out what it represents completely unaware it is intended to represent a nude woman. A humorous scene.

End of Act Three: Another body is found. It is Burt Lightman, the artist of the painting they were admiring.

Act Four (51%)

Burt Lightman was killed the same way as the thieves.

Murdoch searches Bert Lightman’s home. They find that in addition to being a modern painter he was also a talented classical painter. Which meant he was likely a forger.

Murdoch, in his lab, analyses the pigments Lightman used.

Murdoch consults Carducci again. Carducci tries to send Murdoch off on the wrong track but Murdoch overwhelms him with logic.

Murdoch talks to Mrs. Pendrick and tells her of his suspicions. She says she is shocked that Bert Lightman had taken advantage of her. (Later we find out she was likely behind the theft and murders.)

Back at the office Julia Ogden is gazing at Mrs. Pendrick’s painting. They talk about the case. Julia makes it plain she knows what the painting depicts—she is amused.

Murdoch and George Crabtree talk about the case. Murdoch discovers the clue he needs to find the stolen Rembrandt along with four copies.

Act Five (68%)

Murdoch is in his lab doing research.

Murdoch talks to Brackenreid. He has discovered that one of the five paintings recovered is the original. They discuss the murderer’s plans and motivations.

Murdoch returns the original painting to Mr. Pendrick. This is a trap. His expert—Luca Carducci—lies and says that the original is a copy.

Just as Carducci, the killer, is in the act of checking his purloined painting to see whether it's the original, Murdoch walks in. Murdoch accuses Carducci of being the murderer and asks him who he was working for. Carducci is about to kill Murdoch when Mr. Pendrick comes in and shoots Carducci dead.

Act Six: Wrap Up (85%)

Murdoch wraps up the case. Murdoch talks to Brackenreid and Julia Ogden about the case, the solution as well as the questions that remain open. He tells them he suspects Mr. Pendrick  of masterminding the theft.

Murdoch wraps up the relationships. Murdoch visits the significant characters—Mr and Mrs Pendrick—and either resolves the conflicts or shows where the relationships now stand, how they have changed.

So! That's season 3, episode 6. I think it breaks down nicely into six acts, but it doesn’t have to be six. Sometimes writers prefer six acts because they have to work with five commercial breaks!

As novel writers—and this is, ultimately, a blog about novel writing—we don’t have to worry about commercial breaks; at least not yet! So I think in my next post, when I go over a detailed general structure, I’ll use a four act structure with only two murders.  Stay tuned! :-)

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

The Murdoch Mysteries originated as a book series by Maureen Jennings, the first being Except the Dying.

From the blurb: “In the cold Toronto winter of 1895, the unclad body of a servant girl is found frozen in a deserted laneway. Detective William Murdoch quickly finds out that more than one person connected with the girl’s simple life has something to hide.”

I'll talk to you again on Friday. Until then, good writing!


1. Murdoch Mysteries.

2. There is no such thing as a “normal” episode there are episodes which differ more than others. For example, the last episode of a season (these might, for example, place Murdoch himself in mortal danger). Also, though I love it when shows do quirky one-offs that appeal to die-hard fans (the characters go back in time, they find out that ghosts are real) these can be very different kinds of stories.

Tuesday, March 7

Murdoch Mysteries: The Characters

Murdoch Mysteries: The Characters

I love Murdoch Mysteries. I’ve watched the entire series, twice! It's a terrific series and enormously popular in Canada and the UK. My question: Why? What is it about this series that has not only captivated me but millions of others.

That's what I'm going to try and puzzle out in this mini-series. Today I'll talk about the characters and in my next post I'll dissect the structure of an episode.

Murdoch Mysteries: The Characters

Have you heard of Frank Gruber? Gruber once bragged that he could write “a complete mystery novel in 16 days”![1]

Gruber was a prolific writer in the age of Pulp. He wrote “more than 300 stories for over 40 pulp magazines, as well as more than sixty novels, which ... sold more than ninety million copies in 24 countries, sixty five screenplays, and a hundred television scripts. Twenty five of his books have sold to motion pictures, and he created three TV series...”[1]

Why I mention Gruber here is that he wrote a terrific article that The Thrilling Detective has reproduced, one that I think can help us when talking about murder mysteries and characterization.

The Protagonist

While the detective isn’t always a hero he tends to be, especially in English Murder Mysteries. Gruber writes:

“THE HERO. A hero must be colorful. He must have an occupation that is colorful or he must be a colorful person. In general, I have followed the theory that a regular policeman or detective is not colorful. Just think a moment about the greatest detective in all detective fiction - Sherlock Holmes - and you will quickly grasp what I mean by colorful.”[2]

Let’s take a look at Detective William Murdoch. What are his traits?

Detective William Murdoch

Murdoch invents forensic techniques and gadgets that are echoes of common technologies that exist today. He then uses his inventions them to solve cases.

Pro: Because of Murdoch’s use of these techniques he is able to solve crimes no one else can.
Con: His unconventional  methods open him to the ridicule of his peers.

  • Murdoch is mild, the opposite of bold and colorful.
  • He is Roman Catholic in a city that is aggressively protestant.
  • Murdoch has no patience—or aptitude—for politics.

Now for the questions:

a. Does William Murdoch have a colorful occupation?

Is a police detective colorful? I think so! It’s certainly an interesting profession to a number of people. Think of how many shows have been wildly, insanely, popular and that had detectives as their main characters (CSI, Law & Order, etc., etc.)

b. Is William Murdoch a colorful person?

NO! Decidedly not. He is the sensible one, the one who never (or practically never) loses his temper. He is self-controlled, logical. But this gives the other characters a blank—or bland!—canvas to bounce off of. Drabness, Mildness, is Murdoch’s thing!

Murdoch's very drabness, sets him apart from everyone else. It’s not just drabness, mildness, but EXAGGERATED drabness. And, as such, it is, in its own way, colorful.

The Sidekick

FOIL. The sidekick is also called a helper and is often a foil for the protagonist, someone who emphasizes the detective's exceptional qualities by having contrasting ones. For example, Watson’s more ordinary mind provides a nice contrast with Sherlock’s brilliant one, just as Watson’s grasp of social niceties contrasted with Sherlock’s complete ignorance.

SUPPLIES A CRITICAL CLUE. Often the sidekick will supply the detective with the thought, the clue, the idea, that makes everything clear. Usually this is something that seems to be completely unrelated to the case, but it sparks something in the sleuth, he makes a critical connection he wouldn’t have done if he hadn’t heard it.[4]

Constable George Crabtree

How does this tie in with George Crabtree? Let’s see:

  • Technical expertise. Generally speaking, George doesn’t have technical expertise and doesn’t especially desire any, though he doesn’t have trouble completing the tasks Murdoch sets for him and even, occasionally, comes up with a unique insight or two.
  • Rather than being mild and retiring, George is outgoing and sociable. He finds it relatively easy to connect with others.
  • Office Politics. George has more of a head for politics than Murdoch.
  • Loyal. George is intensely loyal to both Detective Murdoch and Inspector Brackenreid. This is a trait he shares with William Murdoch.
  • Unconventional thinking. One of the things I love about George is his ability to come up with a supernatural explanation for unexplained phenomena. He is the opposite of Occam’s Razor!

The Relationship Character

The relationship character, generally speaking, carries the theme of the story. Here’s what Gruber says about theme:

“THEME. This, to me, is the most important element of any mystery story plot. By theme I mean subject matter, what the story is about in addition to, over and above, the ACTUAL MURDER plot. To illustrate:

“‘Death and the Main’ is about fighting cocks. I give a reasonably inside account of how gamecocks are raised, how they are fought, etc. This is knowledge not possessed by the average reader and believe me, I did not know it until I read up on the subject, for the purpose of this story.

“My book, The Lock & the Key, was about locksmiths. A liberal education in making locks and keys was thrown into the murder plot. I knew absolutely nothing about locks and keys until I did research on the subject. I know no more than is in the book.

“If you have ever read Dorothy Sayers' excellent English mysteries, you will find that THEME figures superbly. In The Nine Tailors, the reader learns all about church bells, the art of bell-ringing, etc. In Murder Must Advertise, Miss Sayers discusses advertising in all its phases.

“HOWEVER . . . knowledge of a subject should be used sparingly. The mystery reader may not be as interested in the subject as you are.”

Dr. Julia Ogden

How can we apply what Gruber says about theme to Julia? To answer this, first, let’s look at a few of the good doctor’s defining traits.

  • Doctor Julia Ogden is a modern woman, eager and more than able to shed confining Victorian prejudices.
  • She is blunt, straightforward.
  • She is Murdoch’s ally.
  • She shares Murdoch’s fascination with science and gadgetry.
  • Her family would prefer that she stopped working, married and had lots of children.
  • Although she has no patience for politics she can navigate these waters better than Murdoch.

Julia’s function in the story is to help Murdoch solve the case by giving him information about the victim,  about the manner of his/her death, about what the victim was like in life—whether they had children, their age, how long it took them to die, relative fitness level, what they’d eaten, and so on.

Further, she is a nice contrast to Murdoch. She is often (in the best possible way) a complication, something that upsets the orderliness of his life. Something that makes him stretch himself as a person (e.g., because of Julia, Murdoch took dancing lessons! As did Julia herself.).

The Murderer

Frank Gruber writes:

“VILLAIN. Let's face it, the hero of detective fiction is a Superman. The villain must therefore be a super-Superman or have plenty of assistants. The odds must ALWAYS be against the hero.”[1]

Who the murderer is will, of course, vary from episode to episode, though there are commonalities between all, or at least most, of them.

  • The murderer is almost always introduced within the first few minutes. Often, they seem to be a sympathetic character. 
  • There is often some compelling reason why we don’t suspect the murderer. Perhaps they seem nice and Murdoch might have a crush on them. Perhaps they are acting as a consultant to the police and, generally speaking, police consultants aren’t murders. Or perhaps the murderer is a police detective.

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

How to Write a Mystery, by Larry Beinhart.

I first read this book YEARS ago and it’s great! Larry Beinhart talks about narrative drive, plotting, openings, scene construction, hooks, all the good stuff! Although Beinhart has written quite a bit he is perhaps best known for his book American Hero which was adapted into the film Wag the Dog.

All right! This post is only the beginning. On Wednesday I’ll go over the structure of a Murdock Mysteries episode.


1. Frank Gruber, Wikipedia

2. Frank Gruber's "Fool-proof" 11 Point Formula for Mystery Short Stories.

3. Murdoch Mysteries, Wikipedia.

4. Mystery Writing Basics: Characters & Plot, by Angela Ackerman