Friday, October 14

The Structure of a Murder Mystery

The Structure of a Murder Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

I love Elizabeth S. Craig’s blog—Mystery Writing is Murder. What a great title! Elizabeth Craig is a bestselling mystery writer. When I started reading her blog years ago she was published by Penguin but is now a "hybrid author" which just means she is both traditionally (Quilt or Innocence) and indie published (Myrtle Clover Cozy Mysteries).

Much of what I say, blow, is inspired by her post, “Pre-Writing.” I encourage you to head over to Elizabeth Craig's blog read her article for yourself.

In any case, in what follows I study EC's structure for a cozy mystery in the hope that we can use it to write better mysteries!

A Mystery Structure in Three Acts

I've attempted to keep close to EC's article, though I have included some information drawn from the many mysteries I've devoured read.

Act One: The Ordinary World

1. Setup/Status Quo

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

2. Inciting Incident

You have two choices here:

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


(b) Introduce a body.

3. Call To Adventure & Acceptance of the Call

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

Act Two: The Special World of the Adventure

4. Tests & Trials/Fun & Games

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

5. Midpoint

In my experience as an avid reader of murder mysteries, I've found that the midpoint primarily does two things. First, it introduces new information—information that changes the detective's view of the Special World of the Adventure. Second, the detective goes from being passive (or reactive) to active. Let's look at each of these in turn.

New Information

Sometimes another murder occurs. If so, then this will scuttle the detectives current theory of the crime. How? Well, perhaps the person found was the suspect the detective thought committed the killing(s). Or perhaps the person the detective currently likes for the murder had to reason to kill the latest victim.

Or the new information could be about the killer's motivation for the crime(s). Perhaps the detective discovers the murderer's real name and history. While this gives the detective a lot of new information about the murderer and his/her possible motivation, it doesn't reveal who the killer is since he/she is living under an assumed identity.

The new information can be anything that transforms the detective's understanding of the case, raises the stakes, increases the urgency and, in so doing, pushes the story forward.

Passive (or Reactive) to Active

In the first half of the story the detective largely reacts to the situations, the conditions, that the murderer creates. In the second half of the story the detective takes the fight to the enemy. Now the detective sets traps for the murderer and, in general, actively works to apprehend him/her.

6. Setback

Whatever happens at the midpoint, it puts the sleuth back to square one. The sleuth has to re-evaluate the previous evidence in light of the new information. This means going back and talking to many of the suspects again.

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

It could also be that the sleuth is personally affected by the previous death, or by the information revealed at the midpoint. The victim could have been a close friend or perhaps someone who was an exceptionally good person and an enormous loss to the community. Of course, it could be anything. Let your imagination be your guide.

Act Three: The Return

7. A New Plan/The Epiphany

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

8. Climax

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

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

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

9. Wrap-Up

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

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

The Characters

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

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

The Suspects

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

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

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

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

And now, my pitch. :-)

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.

Today I'm recommending, Fall to Pieces (A Southern Quilting Mystery Book 7), by Elizabeth Craig. From the blurb: "Dappled Hills quilters are eagerly anticipating new events at the Patchwork Cottage quilt shop. The shop’s owner, Posy, has announced ‘Sew and Tell’ socials and a mystery quilt group project. But one day, instead of emailed quilt instructions, the quilters receive a disturbing message about a fellow quilter. When that quilter mysteriously meets her maker, Beatrice decides to use her sleuthing skills to find the killer before more lives are cut short."


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

    Huge sigh.

    So I should start plotting one right away.


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


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

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

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

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

  3. A major thing I've notice about murder mysteries that know one ever seems to point out is the story aspect....Agatha Christie usually has a suspect at the middle point...the final murderer at the end makes the story twice as tragic for the survivors as if it had been the original middle prime suspect..lovley girl friend of sleuth such a shame if she is wrongly accused and goes to prison....real murder kills husband and leaves children orphans..complete annihilation of there status quo and a real tragedy for the children are true innocents and even nice suspect in middle turns out still yo be lovley but a little worldly in one way or another....this a theme in all murder mysteries right a good story and the plot will take care of itself...

    1. Yes, I think Stephen King would agree with you! And, of course, not every great story has a great plot and I have read stories that have terrific plots but the story wasn't that good. That said, I have found that knowing a bit about story structure has helped me figure out what has gone wrong when a story doesn't work.


Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies. I do appreciate each and every comment.