Showing posts with label Agatha Christie. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Agatha Christie. Show all posts

Friday, April 21

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Making of a Murderer, Part 2 of 2

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Making of a Murderer, Part 2 of 2

Yesterday I began fleshing out a character, the murderer, for a murder mystery I'm tentatively calling Murder in Meadowmead. Today I pick up where I left off yesterday (The Making of a Murderer).

Note: I've included this material in my book, How to Write a Murderously Good Murder: The Major Characters.

2. Differentiate the murderer’s motivation from his/her goal.

a. How does the murderer’s motivation resolve into a concrete goal?

As we saw yesterday, the murderer, Lydia, is motivated by her twisted love for her husband, Mark. Her goal, on the other hand, is to murder her father and brother. Let’s break this down.

Motivation --> goal: Lydia (incorrectly) feels that the only way to keep her husband is to acquire large amounts of money. The only way she can do this in the near future is to inherit her family’s wealth. Unfortunately for them, the only way this would happen is if her father and brother were no longer among the living. Therefore Lydia decides they must die.

b. How does the murderer’s motivation show their passion?

The murderer’s motivation (keeping Mark) IS Lydia’s passion. She is head-over-heels in love with Mark. But it’s an unhealthy, immature, love. Mark is the ONLY person she cares about, he is a splash of color in a world of grey. (In other words, the murderer has bigger problems than losing Mark, but she has no idea of this.)

3. What is the murderer’s goal?

The murderer passionately wants to keep something: her husband. Yes, she wants vast sums of money, but she wants the money because she wants to keep her husband.

(Perhaps it will turn out that Lydia is actually more attached to money than she tells herself. Perhaps she wants to think she just wants the money to keep Mark but she’s kidding herself. This is something we can explore down the road.)

a. What does the murderer love? Be specific.

The murderer loves her husband, Mark. She also cares deeply that her business is failing. It isn’t just the money, it bothers her that she wasn’t able to make a success of things, that her father is ashamed of her.

b. Why is the murderer passionate about attaining this particular goal?

There are many ways a particular motivation can be expressed, there are many ways it can resolve into a particular goal. What this question is asking is why did this particular murderer choose this particular goal?

In other words, why choose to go straight to murdering her family rather than do something else like stage a kidnapping or, less violent still, try to sell her failing business, or (despite what her father said) go and beg her father for more money. Why go straight to murder?

The answer is pretty clear: there’s something a bit off about our Lydia. Also, she’s not a big fan of her father and brother. My guess is that there’s a backstory we haven’t uncovered yet. How about ...

Her father didn’t treat Lydia very well when she was a child. He beat her and kept her isolated because he didn’t want her telling anyone.

A few people suspected what was happening at home but they didn’t want to get involved. Lydia’s father was wealthy and could have made a lot of trouble for anyone who spoke up. Her brother never beat her but he didn’t do anything to try and help her either.

4. Be merciless! Give the murderer a deep psychological wound.

a. What is Lydia’s deep psychological wound?

I think we’ve just found out what it is: childhood abuse. Lydia was beaten as a child and not allowed to interact with anyone but her father, brother and their servants. She wasn’t allowed outside unsupervised. Even when she was old enough to go to school they brought tutors in to educate her rather than let her go off on her own. After all, then they could never be sure who she Lydia talked to or what she had told them.

b. How is this deep psychological wound tied into Lydia’s strength?

Every significant character should have a strength, something concrete they’re good at. I know it might sound odd to put it like this, but they should have a characteristic that could help them win a bar bet.

I’m going to say that, because of the abuse she suffered, Lydia became hyper-observant. She’s a past master of Where’s Waldo. Also, ask her to tell what differs between two pictures and it only takes a glance for her to see it. Sometimes, though, she only knows that there IS a difference but she can’t see it. When this happens—and it doesn’t happen often—she becomes paralyzed, obsessed, until she is able to identify the difference. (And, yes, I’m shamelessly borrowing this from Mr. Monk and Sherlock!)

Another effect of her psychological wound, of the childhood abuse she suffered, is having to live with a feeling of isolation. She was isolated throughout her childhood and rarely felt the simple comfort of human touch, a hand on her arm, a quick hug. Consequently, she has an intense aversion to being touched (except for Mark). She can’t bear the touch of a stranger, it feels like ants crawling over her skin and her anxiety ratchets up into the stratosphere.

CHARACTERISTIC: Lydia can’t bear a stranger’s touch.

5. Let the murderer win occasionally.

a. How does the murderer get the upper hand? Give at least one instance where the murderer ‘wins.’

It might sound odd, but Lydia gets the upper hand by killing the brother first. Why? Because Lydia had no obvious motive for killing her brother. Also, for her brother’s murder she has a run-of-the-mill alibi, as one would. The night her brother died Lydia said she was making a new recorder and, when asked, her neighbors say they heard music coming from her workshop. This checks out and, since the detective is used to thinking of Lydia as innocent, this biases him in this direction when her father’s body is found.

CLUE: The night her brother died the weather was unseasonably cold. The only way the neighbors could have heard Lydia play is if she kept the window open.

CLUE: Lydia is quite thin and tends to get a chill. It doesn’t seem to the detective as though she would have left the window open on such a cool night.

Detective’s action: Detective asks Lydia what she was wearing. If she was bundled up then, fine. Sometimes you just want the window open to air out the place. After all, she was working. Perhaps she was sanding? If so, the open window makes sense. But if she WASN’T she may have left the window open because that was the only way the neighbors could have heard her music. It would be easy to set music to automatically play at a certain time.

The detective could say something like: “Say, this looks like a drafty old place. What do you spend in heating?” “Really! That much. My mom was always telling us to put on sweaters, I used to tell her I could tell when she was cold, she’d get me to put on a sweater! So, what do you do in the winter? This place must be cold. You like wearing sweaters? No? Well, that’s interesting.” Or something less lame!!! You get the idea. Just watch an episode of Columbo. He talks to suspects about completely irrelevant things ... or rather, things that seem completely irrelevant until he’s spun his web around the suspect.

6. How does the murderer attempt to mislead the detective?

At a certain point toward the end of the story all the clues will be on the table. The detective just isn’t seeing them in the right way. This will soon change. The murderer needs to at least TRY to spin the events. They need to have some sort of story that explains the murders, the clues gathered, but in a way that casts them as an innocent person. I think of this as the Janus Story, after the two headed god. The murderer is in the unique position of, throughout the entire story, knowing the truth but being driven to lie.

Lydia’s Janus Story: At the moment I’m not sure what this will be and that’s okay. It’s early. One idea is to bring in a touch of the paranormal. Lydia could try to get the detective to believe there’s some sort of a curse at work. If I don’t want to draw in the supernatural/paranormal I could perhaps try to pin the killings on a secret organization that the family had contact with.

Let’s explore each of these possibilities.

Secret Organization (SO)

I love reading stories about secret organizations! This secret organization can’t take over the story, it has to be kept in the background. I’m thinking that it’s something that would (for me) be exotic, something that originated in Asia thousands of years ago.

The reality is that Lydia’s family IS involved with this organization. Lydia stumbled across something, a clue, when she was a child, something she was beaten for. Perhaps a letter in her father’s desk. He had left his desk drawer unlocked intending to be out of his office only a moment. Lydia wandered in and saw something she shouldn’t have. A piece of paper. A letter with an odd looking symbol at the top. Lydia remembered the symbol.

Much later she had to do a book report on something-or-other, and came across that same symbol. The author was talking about a secret organization shrouded in mystery. She wrote her report then forgot about it. Now, casting about for an alternate explanation, an idea occurs to her.

MURDERER’S CHARACTERISTIC: Lydia saves everything. She has every book report she’s ever written, every essay she wrote. 

Since Lydia is a hoarder she still has the book report she wrote and so I don’t need to worry about hiding her internet trail as she does research!

CLUE: Lydia knows she’ll need something substantial to tie her family to the secret organization (I need to think of a cool name!) and so visits her father’s place while he’s away on vacation. The problem is, he arrives home early and catches her there. She stammers a bit and comes up with what she hopes is a plausible reason for her presence. She hopes her father bought it. Later it turns out that although her father didn’t guess what she was up to he thought the event strange enough to mention to his attorney/friend. This was the last time Lydia saw her father but she keeps her mouth shut about it and doesn’t tell the detective. When the detective finds out from her father’s attorney that she met him at his place, that she was digging around there, that her father thought her presence was suspicious, the detective confronts Lydia about this.

QUESTION: What story would Lydia give the detective a) for why she lied to him and b) why she was there?

Okay, good progress! I’m going to shift gears now and think about whether Lydia should, instead, go with a paranormal explanation. I like the idea of having a secret organization, it feels fun, but let’s think about how we could spin a story of a curse.


My detective isn’t going to be in the least superstitious, but the murderer doesn’t know that.

I’m being inspired by the adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor. There the murderer, Susan Maltravers, makes it seem plausible she is seeing ghosts. In reality Susan is attempting to build a narrative that will scare her husband to death (this has a shot of working because he has heart trouble). When this doesn’t work she gets impatient and shoots him. Her Janus Story: The ghost scared him to death.

It could also be that Lydia’s family used to be part of a larger clan but has been plagued with unfortunate accidents. Now the clan has shrunk to contain only the three of them: Lydia's father, Lydia's brother, and herself. Her brother is unmarried and childless. She has no children. Her mother died at some point but I don’t know why.

QUESTION: Were Lydia’s father and mother still married at the time of her mother’s death?

QUESTION: How did Lydia’s mother die? That is, how did she REALLY die and how does Lydia think she died?

It could be that one of Lydia’s ancestors made a promise, one that her grandfather broke. Ever since then tragedy has befallen the family.

I think I like the secret organization angle better. That said, I could roll the curse explanation into the secret organization explanation. It could be that grand-dad did something to anger the secret organization of which they’re all a part. Perhaps even Lydia’s own actions are somehow (unbeknownst to her) occasioned by the secret organization. Perhaps they have been subtly influencing her. Perhaps that’s too exotic for a traditional murder mystery! Though perhaps I could dangle it as a possibility at the end.

(I just got back from the gym, while working out it occurred to me that Lydia’s mother discovered what was going on with her husband and the secret organization. Something happened when Lydia got into her father’s papers. Lydia’s father flew into a rage and her mother intervened to protect her child. Lydia’s father lost control and hit his wife. Taken unawares she fell backward, hit her head and died. Lydia’s father, unable to accept that he killed his wife (whom he loved) blamed his daughter.)

CHANGE: Lydia’s beatings began AFTER her mother’s death.

QUESTION: How old was Lydia when her mother died?
Answer: It has to be the case that Lydia remembers the symbol but young enough that we believe she doesn't have a vivid memory of the event. That is, it needs to seem plausible that she forgot the symbol of the secret organization was in any way tied to her mother’s death, etc. Let’s say 5 years old? 6 years old? (I don’t have children, so if any of you parents want to chime in here, please do!!)

DEEP DARK SECRET: This is another deep dark secret for the murderer. She will discover the truth about the symbol of the secret society and believe (incorrectly) that she was the cause of her mother dying.

CHANGE: This is more of an addition than a change, but ... Let’s have it that Lydia adored her mother. Her mother’s death was immensely traumatic for her. When she learns the truth about her mother’s death—and that she was indirectly the cause of it—she wants vengeance. This doesn’t change anything I’ve already said about Lydia killing her father and brother for the money, but it will make her father’s murder easier for her to carry out. We could say that she came across this information as she went through boxes in her storage locker, perhaps these were boxes of her mother’s things, boxes she hadn’t gone through before. (I just had the thought that perhaps it would be most dramatic if her father tells her this information just before she murders him.)

QUESTION: Why was Lydia going through her mother’s boxes now, at this particular time? What event occasioned this?

Okay! So far so good, we’ll leave that there for now.

7. Reveal the killer’s true face.

The killer has been hiding for most of the story. We haven’t been able to see her directly, we’ve peered at characters wondering: Is that him/her? Is THIS person a seething sea of madness under their mask of calm normality?

The reveal is the place to show the murderer as they truly are. And how do we do that? Put the character in a crucible.

a. At the end of the story how does the murderer reveal his/her inner nature? What do they say? What do they do?

I’m not sure. I think Lydia would be more on the quiet side. Perhaps she would cry, sob. Perhaps she would try to get Mark to understand why she had killed, why she had to kill. (Such behavior will repulse Mark.)

b. What does the character fear the most?

In Lydia’s case, she fears ... Well, what’s her trauma? She fears her father, she fears isolation. She has lived through isolation and she never wants to be that alone ever again. In a sense, her not wanting to lose Mark, her husband, is because she can’t be alone. For Lydia, hell would be solitary confinement. It would be the feeling that she is all alone and that is how she will be forever.

c. How does the murderer react to being unmasked? Does she become violent? Does she curse the detective? Does she try to make everyone understand why she did it, why she had to do it? 

I think Lydia would abandon her dignity, break down, and beg Mark not to leave her.

8. What happens to the killer at the end?

a. How will you wrap up the killer's story? Do they go to jail? Are they killed? Do they (as Agatha Christie ended several of her books) take their own lives? 

I’m not sure. I think this is something that will become clearer as the story progresses.

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 Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft: A step-by-step guide to revising your novel, by Janice Hardy. I’ve read Janice Hardy’s blog for years and her advice is top notch.

From the blurb: “Award-winning author Janice Hardy (and founder of the popular writing site, Fiction University) takes you step-by-step through the novel revision process. She’ll show you how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and how to fix those problems.”

Okay! It looks like we’ve gotten through the making of a murderer! Yea!! If you’re following along and making your own murderer as we go I’d love to learn a bit about him or her. Did you discover her name? Her motive? Her backstory? Please share!! :-)

I’ll continue this series tomorrow and talk about the detective. Till then, good writing!!

Wednesday, April 19

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Making of a Murderer

Writing a Murder Mystery: The Making of a Murderer

Let’s create a murderer!

Today I'm trying something a bit different. In my last post (8 Ways to Make a Murderer) I talked about 8 ways to build a murderer your readers will love to hate. In this post I’m going to begin constructing what, arguably, is the most important character in a murder mystery: the murderer.

Not only do the actions of the murderer set the story in motion, the first killing is the event that breaks the normal functioning of the ordinary world, the victim’s world. Further, the murderer’s repeated interventions keep increasing the stakes, the danger, and the suspense.

Note: I've included this material in my book, How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters.

Detective and Murderer: Two Sides of the Same Coin


The antagonist—the murderer—must be a good fit for the antagonist. They are two sides of the same coin. For example, on Supernatural (I know, I know, Supernatural is NOT a murder mystery, but go with me here) the brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, are opposites. In many ways, each is the antagonist of the other. It works well! The puzzle pieces of character, of push and pull, fit together. This sort of ‘fit’ is what I aim for with the detective and murderer.

For example, Dean tends to draw sharp lines between humans and monsters. At the beginning of the TV series he thinks in terms of black and white: humans good, monsters bad. Sam, however, has a more flexible point of view since he is acquiring abilities (like telepathy and telekinesis) that only 'monsters' have. At the end of the first season the lines between hunter and monster have nicely blurred and Dean is having a bit of a crisis. The thing he loves most in life is his brother but his purpose is to hunt monsters. That clash produces a lot of (lovely!) conflict.

Other examples drawn from Supernatural’s lighter side: Dean loves junk food. LOVES IT!!! Sam, on the other hand, is a bit of a fitness nut. Dean loves classic rock but Sam dislikes it. Dean loves dive bars and friendly women while Sam likes research and getting a decent nights sleep. You get the idea. And, yes, this is a different dynamic than between detective and murderer, but I think it points us in the right direction.

Does one HAVE to do this sort of characterization to have a terrific story? No! Take Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House (I’m referring to the television adaptation with David Suchet). Hercule Poirot is in constant contact with the murderer, Magdala 'Nick' Buckley. I would say that the primary dynamic between detective and murderer is one of father-child, or uncle-niece. Poirot becomes a kind of mentor to Nick and sees it as his job to protect her. In the end, of course, we discover that Nick was manipulating Poirot, just as she manipulated everyone in her life! My point is that with Christie’s plots the satisfaction usually didn’t come from the complex relationships between the characters, it came from the fact that she could play (more or less) fair and still completely surprise you when it came time to reveal who the murderer was.

I think this is one of the major ways in which contemporary murder mysteries differ from those of Christie’s day: now there’s more of a focus on getting to know the detective as a person.

But Christie did create interesting characters! Don't believe me? Read Sparkling Cyanide.

Detective and Murderer: Shared Experiences

I think it’s most effective if there’s a certain amount of ‘mirroring’ between the detective and murderer.

For example, if the antagonist is brilliant, the protagonist should be brilliant. (This is true for a traditional murder mystery though it might not be in other genres.) But there can be variations. The antagonist could be brilliant and the detective clever. Cleverness can beat brilliance. If you don’t believe me, watch a few episodes of Columbo!

(We’ll get to this later when we talk about the detective, but if the detective is brilliant then it works well if he has a character like John Watson (in Sherlock) as his sidekick. Watson is an ‘everyman’ but he’s not dim. Sure, he’s not even close to being as smart as Sherlock but he understands people and THAT is a kind of understanding, of knowledge, Sherlock completely lacks.)

Generally speaking, if the protagonist has a difficult relationship with a sibling over a certain issue, say trust/distrust, then the protagonist often mirrors this in his relationship with another character. This other character is often the key character in the B-story. For example, if the protagonist is beginning to wonder if he can trust someone he has always had absolute faith in—his sidekick—then he might meet someone, sometime new, who seems to offer him the kind of relationship he thought he’d had with his sidekick. This situation could resolve itself in a number of ways but often something occurs in the B-story that allows the protagonist to see his sidekick in a new way. Perhaps that’s for the better, perhaps not.

Since, here, we’re talking about the antagonist in a murder mystery, it could be that the protagonist, the detective, is the new person in the antagonist’s B-story. This could make the antagonist’s sidekick jealous—in the protagonist’s mind, unreasonably so but they don’t (yet) know what’s going on—and create a nice, very natural, red herring. Of course I’m not suggesting that this buddy relationship between the protagonist and antagonist would need to last more than a few pages, but it could help move the plot forward.

Setting up a point of comparison between the antagonist and protagonist.

You could also go the other way and have the antagonist have a wonderful, trusting, relationship with a family member while the antagonist has a twisted relationship with someone in his life and show how that difference affects the rest of their lives.

For example, in Basic Instinct (again, I know, NOT a traditional murder mystery) Nick Curran, the detective, had three main relationships. One with the murderer, Catherine Tramell, one with his partner, Gus, and the third with his psychiatrist, Dr. Beth Garner. Basic Instinct is one of those movies I’ve watched over and over again because I LOVED the ending. Also, I thought it was well-plotted.

Notice that Catherine’s relationship with Nick forms a perfect counterpoint to Nick’s relationship with Gus (or so I would argue). Gus would (and did) die for Nick. Gus loves Nick like a not-too-bright younger brother. Gus thinks Nick is a good person, one who just keeps messing up. Catherine, far from dying for Nick, kills Gus and will likely kill Nick. Catherine doesn’t think Nick is a good person. (One of the interesting things about Basic Instincct is that this question, whether Nick is a good person, is left open: Was he a good person who did some bad things or was he a bad person who did some good things?)

Both Nick and Catherine had lost people. People they loved. And these losses had changed them. Nick was trying to reform himself, to kick cocaine, to stop drinking, and to attend therapy. Catherine, however, leaned into the trauma, the pain, the loss. She accepted it. She even seemed to revel in it. My point here is just that this shared link—both of them having suffered the loss of someone they adored—gives us a much needed point of comparison. We can compare them as people, we can compare their choices.

Of course the most important comparison is between the protagonist and antagonist in respect to WHY the murderer did what he did, his motive. In the end, it will be the detective’s insight into this aspect of the antagonist’s psyche that will point her in the right direction. It is what (although she doesn’t understand it fully at first) will give her an edge.

Murder at Meadowmead: The Murderer

Enough preamble! Let’s create a murderer.

Murderer’s Name

Let’s start with something deceptively easy. What’s the murderer’s name? Generally, this only comes to me after I’ve written a bit about the character. Before this—I kid you not—I just write “M” in my zero draft. At a certain point I’ll get a feeling for a name, or sometimes it’ll pop into my head. That’s what happened here. I was mulling over the story and then, “Lydia,” whooshed in. So—as I often do when this happens—I visited a site that gives the meanings of popular names. said that:

“Lydia is a very early place name, that of an area of Asia Minor whose inhabitants are credited with the invention of coinage and of having strong musical talent—as well as great wealth.”[1]

That fits since, as we’ll see, our Lydia seeks great wealth. Musical talent isn’t something I had thought of giving the character, but I’ll keep that at the back of my mind.

Murderer’s Motivation

Why does the murderer kill? I’m going to say she kills for LOVE. Specifically, she loves her husband madly, passionately. She can’t imagine life without him. Lydia is the sort of person who would spend everything she had on a love spell.

Here we’ve taken a normal, natural, wonderful emotion and twisted it by exaggerating it, by taking it to an extreme.

When Lydia thinks of life without her husband (let’s call him Mark) she feels as though she’s free-falling. Sometimes she dreams she’s falling from a cliff so tall she can’t see the bottom. She reaches out to clutch at something, anything, and wakes up in a cold sweat. She realizes that for her, there is no life without him.

The problem (and here I’m giving the problem from Lydia’s perspective): Although charming and capable of kindness, her husband insists on having a certain standard of living. If she can’t give that to him, he’ll find someone who can. If he knew she had run out of money then, even though he is genuinely fond of her, he would drop her like a hot potato.

Murderer’s motivation: Lydia’s desire to keep her husband in her life whatever the cost.
Murderer’s (specific) goal: To murder her father and brother to inherit her family’s fortune.
Murderer’s (general) goal: To acquire enough money to sustain her and her husband’s lavish lifestyle.

Important Note: It will turn out that LYDIA IS WRONG. She thinks that if only she can acquire a fortune that her husband won’t leave her but this isn’t true. It’s not the money, that’s NOT why her husband is slipping away from her (Lydia is correct that her husband IS slipping away). But even if she acquires a fortune he will still leave. It’s her. Her diminishing finances have put her under a great deal of stress and she’s become irritable and withdrawn. Further, there’s something about Lydia that’s immature, that never grew up. And it kinda scares him.

Okay! That was a lot of information. All this more or less just came to me as I was writing, but it seems to hang together. Now let’s try to unpack the murderer’s specific goal so we can see what kind of clues we’ll need to plant.

Murderer’s Specific Goal

Three questions need to be answered:

Why does Lydia have money? 
Where did she get it? 
Why is Lydia running out of money?

Let’s do some brainstorming. You could do this with me and see what answers you come up with!

Lydia comes from money—her father is a billionaire—but he is a firm believer in not spoiling his children. When Lydia was young her father set a trust fund up for her. It was enough that she could live comfortably—though not lavishly—on the interest. If she wanted to dip into the principle she could, though her father warned her in no uncertain terms that, barring extreme circumstances, she would get no more money from him.

This could go one of two ways.

First choice:

Lydia is out of money and so needs extreme circumstances. She racks her brain and settles on the idea of a fake kidnapping. She will need the help of another person to pull it off, but if her father received a ransom note she feels he could be persuaded to part with enough money to fund their lavish lifestyle for the rest of their lives.

Lydia finds someone to help her but it goes terribly wrong and her accomplice dies. Lydia didn’t murder him (perhaps he attacked her and as she defended herself he was killed) but he wouldn’t have died if she hadn’t been trying to deceive her father. Something within Lydia snaps. She hides the body and then goes back to dispose of it.

Second choice:

Lydia is out of money but doesn’t know anyone who could help her with a kidnapping, so that’s out. She doesn’t see any other way: if she wants the money she’ll have to kill her father and brother.

The second seems more straightforward so that’s the one I’ll go with.

The 8 Ways to Make a Murderer

So far so good. Now let’s go back to my previous post and see if we can answer those questions I raised yesterday. By answering these questions we’ll (hopefully) be able to discover concrete answers as well as discover what clues need to be planted. Afterward, we’ll step back and see where that leaves us and we’ll try and answer the question, or at least make inroads on the question, of what the underlying thread of similarity or contrast will be between the protagonist and antagonist.

1. Make the murderer at least as formidable as the sleuth.

The sleuth can only be as impressive as the murderer so we need to create a smart, capable, powerful murderer.


- How are we going to show that the murderer is smart, capable and powerful? What sort of actions or objects would demonstrate this?
- What are the murderer’s most important characteristics, their tags and traits?

I’d love to read what you come up with (we’re doing this together, right?!), but here are a few of my brainstormed answers:

Smart: Like Inspector Morse from the show of the same name, Lydia does the New York Times Saturday crossword, a crossword known as challenging. (This is more of a behavioral trait than a tag.)

Capable: Since musical aptitude is part of her name, perhaps Lydia plays an instrument. This isn’t generally what I think of when I think someone is capable, but I’m going to run with it. (One thing is sure, from what I know so far about Lydia she is NOT a wiz at financial management.) It could be that she began playing an instrument in school and kept at it. Perhaps she found that playing an instrument soothed her anxiety. (Ah! She has anxiety. Good to know.)

What kind of instrument? To work as a tag it would have to be something she could carry around, so it would need to be small, something like a harmonica, recorder, flute or ucalaly. I think I’ll go with recorder. She becomes interested in various ways recorders can be made, their history, etc. Lydia likes the idea of DIY and she’s even made a few of her own recorders. It’s a hobby.

Powerful: I think of a powerful person as someone who can influence the lives of others. I’m not sure this fits Lydia, though perhaps I’ve missed something. Perhaps she runs a company of some sort, one whose prospects have diminished recently. Perhaps she owns a huge beer company but the craft breweries that are sprouting up like mushrooms after a rain have cut into her sales. She knows the company will have to declare bankruptcy. She’s powerful in the sense that the fate of her employees rests with her. Of course she hates beer—can’t stand it. She’s a wine snob.

How can I turn this into a tag? What represents the significance of this company to her? What represents the impact it has had on her life? Perhaps Lydia owns the company but her husband runs it. In her mind, he has run it into the ground, but she’s not being fair. The market for large commercial breweries is shrinking, there isn’t anything Mark could have done about that. This isn’t exactly a tag, but when Lydia sees beer ... part of the reason why she hates beer is because it represents the conflict between her and her husband, it exemplifies her dismal financial state.

Okay! Better.  At least we have a significant part of the backstory, a significant emotional element, tied to something physical (beer and a company that makes beer), something we can introduce into a scene to elicit an emotional reaction. A reaction that will demonstrate the murderer’s—Lydia’s—character.

Ack!!!! I’m only at 8.1 and this post is pushing 3,000 words! Okay, I’ll stop here.

I wasn’t planning on publishing a post tomorrow but I think I might try to push on with this. SO! Please do come back tomorrow as we continue to create our murderer.

By the way, if you’d like to take a look at my previous post (8 Ways to Make a Murderer) and offer suggestions regarding what characteristics our murderer should have, please do!


“Lydia” over at

Tuesday, April 18

Writing a Murder Mystery: 8 Ways to Make a Murderer

Writing a Murder Mystery: 8 Ways to Make a Murderer

I’ve decided to try something new! As many of you know, I’m putting together a book on how to write a murder mystery (see: How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters). As part of that I’ve begun developing an example story, a traditional murder mystery with elements of a cozy.

When I sat down to write this blog post I had an idea: Why not take a deep dive into this material and try it out on my blog! I’ve been thinking about how to structure this and hit on the idea of doing a “theory” post—talk about an element of structure—followed by an example post—take the previous day's theory and use it to create an outline.

For example, this post gives 8 tips for creating a murderer. Next post I will step through each tip and use it to create the murderer. This is just the start, though. Over the next few weeks my plan is to develop an outline for a murder mystery I’m calling Murder at Meadowmead.

I don't plan on using this outline to write a story—but if you would like to, please do!

Warning: Murder Mystery Under Construction

Please keep in mind that this is an experiment! I don’t have the story already plotted. I will be putting it together as I go (and please feel free to make suggestions!). As a result the outline will evolve. Story elements will shift, break apart, re-form and (occasionally) disappear.

At the end of it all I should have a completed outline for a traditional murder mystery. At that point I’ll bundle up all the posts as well as the example story outline and put it into a book for easier access.

I’d love to know what you think of this idea! Thumbs up, thumbs down? You can leave a comment here or contact me privately. Thanks!

So, here we go! What follows is the theory and then, tomorrow, I’ll post my outline of the murderer, one which implements most of these points.

The Murderer

The murderer is the person who violates the norms of society by intentionally ending the life of another.

8 Tips for Creating a Murderer Your Readers Will Love to Hate

1. Make the murderer at least as formidable as the sleuth.

Since the sleuth can only be as formidable as the antagonist (weak antagonist equals weak sleuth), make the antagonist smart and capable.

How are you going to show the murderer is smart and capable? What sort of actions would demonstrate this?
What are the murderer’s most important characteristics, their tags and traits?

2. Differentiate the murderer’s motivation from his/her goal.

Picture this: A man in a rowboat frantically rows away from a shark and heads toward an island.

Character’s motivation: To escape the shark.
Character’s goal: To reach the island.
Story Question: Will the man reach the island before the shark eats him?

The character’s motivation explains the goal and reveals their passion.

How does the murderer’s motivation resolve into a concrete goal?
How does the murderer’s motivation show their passion?

3. What is the murderer’s goal?

The murderer must either passionately want to acquire something or prevent the loss of something (spouse, job, status, money, power, and so on).

The murderer’s general goal is to get away with his/her crime, but let’s drill down. What, SPECIFICALLY, does the murderer want? Does she want to prevent the loss of her business? Acquire satisfaction by getting revenge on the sister/mother/brother/father who made her life hell for the last 30 or so years? Prevent the loss of her spouse by preventing him from running off with his much younger mistress? Prevent her sibling from gaining the inheritance?

I love Agatha Christie’s work but occasionally she wrote killers who were motivated solely by money. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun the murderer's specific motivations aren’t revealed other than that they killed to acquire the victim’s vast fortune.

It would have been nice to know WHY the murderers were so intent on acquiring vast sums of money. Sure, who doesn’t want vast sums of money? But still. It doesn’t personalize the killers in any way. If they had needed the money to finance an operation for their child, or because one of them wanted to return home to Russia one last time to see her ailing mother, or ... well, you get the idea.

The decision to murder isn’t a decision driven by abstract calculations. It is something one passionately, desperately, desires. (I thought Christie did a good job of this in Body in the Library (this holds for BOTH the book and the TV adaptation).)

What does the murderer love? Be specific.
Why is the murderer passionate about attaining this particular goal?

4. Be merciless! Give the murderer a deep psychological wound.

The murderer, like the sleuth, should have a deep psychological wound. The wound needn’t explain the murder or in any way justify it, but it WILL help humanize them.

Moriarty’s strength was also his weakness (as Mr. Monk said, “It’s a gift and a curse.”) He is brilliant but his very brilliance isolates him. This is true for Sherlock as well, but he has been able to make connections to others, to Dr. John Watson, Mrs. Hudson,  DI Lestrade and Molly Hooper. Moriarty views regular humans (in other words, you and me) as ants to be squashed if it suits him.

What is your murderer’s deep psychological wound?
How is this deep psychological wound tied into Lydia's strength?

5. Let the murderer win occasionally.

Keep in mind that letting the murderer score a point on the detective is different from the detective suffering a setback.

If a grumpy witness refuses to cooperate that is a setback for the detective (and so, automatically, a gain for the antagonist) but here I’m talking about a stratagem—an intentional plan implemented by the murderer that paid off. Perhaps the murderer feels the detective is getting too close and he/she plants a red herring that succeeds (at least for a while) in misdirecting the detective.

How does the murderer get the upper hand? Give at least one instance where the murderer ‘wins.’

6. How does the murderer attempt to mislead the detective?

At a certain point all the clues will be on the table. The detective just isn’t seeing them in the right way. This will soon change. The murderer needs to at least TRY to spin the events. They need to have some sort of story that explains the murders, the clues gathered, but in a way that casts them as an innocent person. I think of this as the Janus Story, after the two headed god. The murderer is in the unique position of, throughout the entire story, knowing the truth but they must spin a convincing lie.

What is your murderer's Janus story?

7. Reveal the killer’s true face.

The murderer 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 (though she will likely APPEAR to be all these things prior to being revealed). At the reveal it is important we get to see the murderer as she really is.

We need to see the murderer’s contempt for those around her, for those who counted themselves her friends (a terrific example of this is Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House).

At the end of the story how does the murderer reveal his/her inner nature? What do they say? What do they do?
What does the killer fear the most?
How does the murderer react to being unmasked? Does she become violent? Does she curse the detective? Does she try to make everyone understand why she did it, why she had to do it? 

8. What happens to the killer at the end?

If you're writing a traditional murder mystery, then there has to be some sort of punishment meted out. SOMEONE must be punished. But if you want to have a recurring character you could make one person the 'sufferer,' they get caught and pay the price, but their partner—or perhaps the mastermind—escapes. Still, though, at some point they must pay. So, even if they aren't punished in the current story, think about what their ultimate fate will be.

How will you wrap up the killer's story? Do they go to jail? Are they killed? Do they (as Agatha Christie wrote in several of her books) take their own lives? 

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 Jeff VanderMeer’s wonderful creation: Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction.

From the blurb: “Employing an accessible, example-rich approach, Wonderbook energizes and motivates while also providing practical, nuts-and-bolts information needed to improve as a writer.”

That’s it! As I said, tomorrow I’ll post the start of my outline. Please keep in mind this is an experiment and that your feedback is (as always!) welcome.

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

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.

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 1

The Secret of Agatha Christie’s Success: Deceit!

The Secret of Agatha Christie’s Success: Deceit!

Agatha Christie’s book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was the very first murder mystery I ever read!

It’s not surprising I took to Christie’s work. The Guinness World Records lists Agatha Christie as the best selling novelist of all time. Her books have sold roughly 2 BILLION copies! Only the works of William Shakespeare and the Bible outsell her.

This makes me wonder: What is the secret to Agatha Christie’s success?

There has been talk of a formula but I think Christie simply had a handle on the structure of a good story and, specifically, the structure of a great murder mystery!

Beyond that, I think her phenomenal success can be traced to two things:

1. Christie introduced ROMANCE into the murder mystery. 

2. Christie was very good at hiding the identity of the murderer. And she usually did this cleverly and fairly. 

Today I’m only going to concentrate on (2), above. (If you would like to read more about including romance in a story, see: The Structure of a Romance Story.)

How to Make Readers Think the Murderer Couldn't Have Done It. 

There’s no other way to say it: Agatha Christie deceived her readers! And we loved it. How did she do this?

7 Ways to Disguise a Murderer:

1. Agatha Christie made readers think the murderer was a victim. (Peril at End House.) 

Examples: Peril at End House, The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor, And Then There Were None.

In PERIL AT END HOUSE Nick—the eventual murderer—convinces Poirot that someone is trying to kill her. She is subtle and drops clues she knows the great detective (who loves clues!) will pick up on.

In reality, she’s setting up her friend (Fredricka 'Freddie' Rice) to take the fall for a murder she is preparing to commit.

The following summary of Peril at End House (this is from the televised version starring David Suchet) contains spoilers.
Hercule Poirot and his loyal companion Captain Hastings are vacationing at a Cornish Resort: The Majestic. Hastings tells Poirot about an explorer—Michael Seton—who is attempting to fly around the world but who has disappeared. Shortly after this we are introduced to one of the main characters of the story: Magdala ‘Nick’ Buckley (Magdala is a family name). When Nick and Poirot meet she tells him in a casual, offhanded way that she has come close to death three times in the past few days.

After finding various clues, Poirot comes to believe someone is trying to murder Nick. But who? And why?

Maggie Buckley, Nick’s cousin, travels to Nick's home, End House—a gorgeous old place that Nick loves but which is mortgaged to the hilt and in desperate need of renovation—to help watch over Nick. Tragically, the night she arrives Maggie is shot dead. Since the two girls were both wearing black dresses, and since Maggie was wearing Nick’s fur wrap, the two girls would have looked almost identical. Everyone believes Maggie was killed because the killer mistook her for Nick.

After Maggie dies Poirot comes to believe Nick was engaged to Michael Seaton, the deceased world explorer. Michael Seton has left a will that leaves everything to his fiancee, Magdala. Nick is set to inherit millions! Now that Poirot knows why someone is trying to kill Nick the only question left to answer is who?

Strangely, the answer to this seems straightforward. Nick’s best friend, Freddie, is Nick’s primary beneficiary. If Nick dies, Freddie gets everything! The only trouble is, Poirot doesn’t believe it. Freddy is not stupid and the latest attempt on Nick’s life was facile. Besides that, Freddy had no clear motive. She didn’t need the money. She wasn’t desperate. The psychology was all wrong!

It’s here, about three-quarters of the way through the book, just after the all hope is lost point, that Christie gives Poirot the clue which reveals everything. It all hinges on a name. Nick’s given name is Magdala. Further, we know it’s a family name. At this point Miss Lemon and Hastings engage in silly wordplay, wondering what the nicknames are for various given names. Hearing them, Hercule Poirot asks himself: What is Maggie’s given name? What if it were Magdala ...? And, of course, it was. Magdala ‘Maggie’ Buckley was Michael Seton’s fiancee, not Nick!

Nick had killed Maggie so she could pose as Michael Seton’s fiancee and inherit his millions.

Her immediate motive: Nick was fanatically devoted to End House, and she would lose it if she didn’t get quite a lot of money very soon.
That’s the description! Sorry for the length. Peril at End House is, IMHO, one of Christie’s most clever mysteries.

You see the pattern? The murderer tries to be clever, sets themselves up as the victim and in so doing misdirects both Poirot and the reader.

The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor

When the BBC did their adaptation of this story they changed it a wee bit. It is the BBC version I’m referring to. Here’s a brief summary:

Mr. Maltravers has a weak heart, a failing business, a young wife and quite a lot of life insurance. Not the best combination! It is perhaps no surprise that soon after we meet Mr. Maltravers he is found dead of an apparent heart attack. His body is found under a tree said to be haunted by the spirit of a girl who committed suicide decades before. Mr. Maltravers' face is frozen in an expression of shock and agony. 
The victim's wife of two years is convinced that her late husband saw the girl’s spirit and was, quite literally, scared to death. She SEEMED devoted to her late husband, but appearances can be deceiving. Could she have had a motive for killing him? Or perhaps it is exactly as she claims, that a spirit inhabits the tree and it frightened her husband so much his heart gave out.

Mr. Maltravers’ had a brief dalliance with his secretary years before but his secretary—a severe woman of middle-age—still cares for him. Might her caring have turned into something darker?

Mrs. Maltravers is an attractive, intelligent woman apparently devoted to her elderly, ailing husband. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that one of her old friends, Captain Black, still carries a torch for her. He seems honorable, but what might he do to win her heart?

At first it seems as though Mrs. Maltravers is a victim. She sees a ghost in the big spooky tree and no one believes her. The ghost makes her mirror bleed and tortures her with visions of death and blood. At first it seems as though Poirot is nothing but solicitous toward the young widow but it gradually emerges that he suspects her.

Perhaps this particular story is a bit dated in that it relies on the reader suspending disbelief in ghosts and the like, but I found the adaptation convincing.

2. Agatha Christie made readers think the murderer was dead at the time of the crime. (And Then There Were None)

Christie makes the reader think that a certain character is dead and so, when another murder occurs, we think THAT character can’t have committed the murder.

And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None is Agatha Christie’s best selling book and probably one of the most popular novels of all time. Reading what follows will reveal the ending, so—if you haven’t yet—go read the book, then come back!

Okay. Here’s the plot:

Ten very different people are lured to an island by a variety of pretexts. Here’s the Wikipedia summary:

“All have been complicit in the deaths of other human beings, but either escaped justice or committed an act that was not subject to legal sanction. The guests and two servants who are present are "charged" with their respective "crimes" by a gramophone recording after dinner the first night, and informed that they have been brought to the island to pay for their actions. They are the only people on the island, and cannot escape due to the distance from the mainland and the inclement weather, and gradually all ten are killed in turn, each in a manner that seems to parallel the deaths in the nursery rhyme. Nobody else seems to be left alive on the island by the time of the apparent last death. A confession, in the form of a postscript to the novel, unveils how the killings took place and who was responsible.”

The murderer is one of the 10 (the classic closed society). He/she succeeds in convincing one of the other guests on the island, a doctor, to help him fake his death. The doctor—a man too trusting for his own good—agrees.

Every guest of the island—well, every guest except for the murderer!—is a victim. So we, the reader, see the culprit as a victim for most of the book. It is only at the very end, when everyone is dead, that Christie reveals the secret to the puzzle.

I think And Then There Were None was one of Christie’s best books. It was clever, filled with twists, and the whole thing held together after you read the solution.

3. Agatha Christie made the reader think the killer had a cast iron alibi. (Evil Under the Sun)

Christie tricked the reader into thinking the killer couldn’t have done it. Why? Because he/she had no opportunity.

Briefly, in Evil Under the Sun the murderers pose as a young married couple with more than their share of problems. He is carrying on an affair with Mrs ???, a wealthy movie star and she—delicate flower that she is ("I must get out of the sun, I burn so easily...") is devastated but tries to take her husband's philandering in stride.

The truth is that nothing is as it seems. The movie star is their mark, they've arranged to strip her of her wealth then kill her before she has a chance to protest. They work together to give each other an alibi for the crime. Mrs. R. makes it appear as though she was swimming with another guest at the time of Mrs. R's apparent death while Mr R is one of the two people who (apparently) found the movie star's body.

In reality, the 'body' Mr. R found was Mrs R playing dead. After the time of discover is set then Mr. R kills the movie star in his own sweet time. This was crusial because at that time Mrs. R had an alibi (she was swimming with ???) and Mr. R had been with other peole at every second up to that point. Afterwards (it was thought) it didn't matter where he was, but in reality it was after she was 'found' that the true murder occurred.

So you see,  Christie made readers think that Mr R wasn’t a member of the closed society, that his name wasn't on the list of possible killers (for more about 'closed societies' see my article English vs American Murder Mysteries).

4. Agatha Christie made the killer the narrator. (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

Making the narrator the killer isn’t considered fair play. Even though The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was one of Agatha Christie's most successful books, the writing club she belonged to—the Detection Club—(Dorothy L. Sayers, Baroness Emma Orczy and G. K. Chesterton were also members)—explicitly forbid its members from employing this technique. That said, Christie got away with it! Why? Readers, even though they grumbled a bit about it not being quite fair, LOVED the book!

(For more on Agatha Christie and the Detection Club: Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules.)

That said, I’m not sure I’d recommend anyone else try making the narrator the killer, although I wouldn’t be surprised if someone gave a young Christie that very advice!

5. Agatha Christie made each suspect the murderer. (Murder on the Orient Express).

This was truly clever. What’s an implicit assumption readers make? That one (or possibly two) of the suspects are murderers. We don’t think: They all could have done it! At least we didn’t up until Murder on the Orient Express!

6. Agatha Christie made the murderer a police officer. (Hercule Poirot's Christmas)

In an English cozy police officers can be incompetent, arrogant, rash or stupid but they are not murderers. So Christie decided to make a police officer the murderer in Hercule Poirot's Christmas. And it worked beautifully!

7. Agatha Christie made the murderer a child. (Crooked House)

Kids are sweet and innocent, right? This is an Agatha Christie novel so ... not necessarily!

* * *

As I said at the beginning of this post, the trick to keeping your readers from guessing the murderer is to—in the fairest possible way—trick the reader. Part of this is making the murderer the sort of person we tend not to suspect. Someone we trust.

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.

Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today), by Jennifer Steinhauer

I LOVED Twinkies as a kid, how about you? Or maybe you preferred Oreos or Fig Newtons? Here’s a book that will helps us recreate the classic oh-so-bad-for-you snacks! I haven’t tried any of these recipes myself—not yet! As soon as I get a kitchen, though, I’m making my own Twinkies. :-)


1. Here I’ve only given one story as an example, but Christie used each of these techniques in many of her books.