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.