Sunday, October 20

How To Write A Murder Mystery, Part Two

How To Write A Murder Mystery, Part Two

Here is the second and final part of this two part micro-series on how to write a murder mystery. To read part one click here: How To Write A Murder Mystery.

11. There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics

Everyone lies.

At least, all your suspects should. The murderer will lie about being the murderer (of course) but the rest of your suspects were off doing various other things they feel disinclined to reveal. Your sleuth must either drag it out of them or do some old fashioned detection. Or both.

Susan Spann writes that "Figuring out what your suspects are hiding is just as important as figuring out 'who-done-it' … and sometimes, a lot more fun."

12. Outline the events of your novel the reader sees

Your outline "should include every major scene (and major clue) in the novel. It gives you a road map and helps you keep your sleuth on course when everyone starts lying."

13. Outline the events of your novel the reader DOESN'T see

This outline includes all the scandalous things your suspects were doing when the murder(s) took place.

This outline will tell you "which clues to plant, and where" and will keep "the lies from jamming up the story’s moving parts."

14. Write the reveal first

At the end of every mystery novel there is a reveal scene where the sleuth goes over each person's motive, or potential motive, for committing the crime. In so doing, all the clues are trotted out and the sleuth explains what kind of clue it is and how it relates (or not) to a murder. (See point 8 of yesterday's post for the three kinds of clues.)

At the end of the reveal the reader must not only know HOW each murder was committed but WHY it was committed and WHO committed it.

15. The first half of the story

Write this part fast. Much of what happens here will depend on how the story ends, so don't worry about it too much until you've written the second half. (Yes, it's a bit of a chicken and egg problem.)

- Introduce the sleuth
- Introduce the suspects

Remember to introduce characters in action and have that action tell the reader something important about what kind of character they are. What do they desire above all else? What is their ruling passion? What do they fear? What do they do better than anyone else?

16. The midpoint

By the time the midpoint comes around your sleuth should have sussed out who the murderer is.

The problem is: he's wrong.

Still, your sleuth doesn't know he's wrong so the investigation shifts at the midpoint from discovering how the crime was committed to discovering WHY the murderer committed the crime.

You've read this time and again, right? The sleuth is convinced they know who did it but they don't know why. They don't know the motive and they can't arrest the perp until they have that final piece of the puzzle.

17. All hope is lost

At some point—usually at around the three-quarter mark—the sleuth will experience a major setback and, shortly afterward, go through the "all hope is lost" point.

At this stage the sleuth realizes he was wrong. The killer isn't who he thought. Further, because of the sleuth's mistake not only is the murderer going to kill the sleuth, he is going to kill everyone the sleuth loves or even vaguely cares about and, after stealing the sleuth's new car, the murderer will ride off into the sunset to live a long, satisfied, life.

Or so it will seem.

In other words, this is where the detective hits bottom, the floor breaks and he falls through to the true oil slathered, garbage encrusted, foul depths of hopeless despair.

And then, as Susan Spann writes, he has to dig her way out with nothing but a broken chopstick.

(I think that sometimes it isn't the sleuth who makes the mistake at the midpoint, it's someone the that is heading up the investigation, either their rival or a helper.)

18. The sleuth's special something

Your sleuth has to extricate himself from this mess using that special something that makes him a hero.

With Indiana Jones, it was his common sense and his courage, with Luke Skywalker, it was his innate aptitude for the force and his faith/trust. With Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby he's usually wittier and smarter than everyone else. Tom Barnaby's cousin, John Barnaby, uses his understanding of human psychology (like Agatha Christie's character, Poirot).

Every hero needs a special something. This special something gives the hero the edge he needs when the chips are down. It allows him to extricate himself from the clutches of the murderer. Or fate. Or whatever.

19. Race to the finish

I think of the time between the All Hope is Lost point and the Climax as the Race To The Finish.

No new characters are introduced and the secondary plots have either been resolved or are on the backburner. The sleuth is focused and must use everything he has—plus a little more—if he is going to achieve his goal and bring the murderer to justice.

20. Finish the first draft BEFORE revising

As far as I'm concerned all this advice is optional. Experiment and do what works for you.

That said, I do believe there is one rule observed amongst most writers who finish more than one novel a year: finish your first draft; write it all the way through and type "The End" before you start to revise it.

Do this even if you're convinced your story sucks.

Do this even if your story does suck!

After you have the entire story laid out before you in all its dismal glory you can form an outline. THEN you can revise and tweak and adjust and rewrite to your hearts content.

21. Revise

After you've written the rough draft comes the revisions. Here are a few things to look at:


This is a complex topic, but, briefly, look at your scenes and sequals. If the story is moving too fast, if you need readers to be more emotionally engaged, make the sequels longer. If the pace is too slow, make the sequels shorter. (Jim Butcher has written terrific articles on scenes and sequals.)

Plot is fundamentally about change.

Every story I have ever read had a beginning, middle and an ending. Beyond that there is a lot of variation.


- Is each character distinct? Do they each have a unique voice?
- Is each character fresh/new/original?
- Do your characters change? Each character should change over the course of the story as well as (in smaller ways) in each scene.


Are all the clues in the right places and do they make sense?

That's it! Now go write a murder mystery. (grin)

Good writing!

Photo credit: "focus" by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Thanks so much for these articles! I'm in the process of revising my first mystery for better structure--better clues, more suspects, and so on. So I'm devouring any tips on mystery writing I can find. Thank goodness I grew up reading mysteries--anybody remember Hitchcock's The Three Investigators?

    1. Thanks Kessie, glad you liked them! All the best on revising your mystery; sometimes I think that revising is the most important--and probably the most tedious!--part of writing. Thanks for reminding me of Three Investigators, great books. Cheers!

  2. I really like this advice. Clipping for later reference!

  3. This is a good list. Clipping for later reference!


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