Showing posts with label #murdermystery. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #murdermystery. Show all posts

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.

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.