Do you love murder mysteries? Do you want to write your own but don’t know where to start?
Well, you’ve come to the right place!
In this article, you will learn how to write compelling murder mystery stories that move the plot forward and keep your readers guessing until the end. We’ll discuss structure, key moments, character development, and setting.
Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, read on for all the tips and tricks you need to create an edge-of-your-seat murder mystery!
What Is A Murder Mystery?
A murder mystery is a fast-paced story in which a killing is committed, and the characters must solve the mystery by uncovering clues and identifying the culprit.
The murder mystery genre includes elements of suspense and detective work, making it a popular choice for readers who enjoy puzzles and trying to piece together all the clues.
While the plot of a murder mystery can be complex, the basic premise is reasonably simple: someone has been killed, and it is up to the main characters to find out who did it.
How Are Murder Mysteries Different from General Mystery Stories?
For one thing, murder mysteries usually involve much higher stakes. After all, the victim in a murder mystery is already dead, so there’s very little chance of a happy resolution.
In addition, they tend to be darker and more violent than other mystery genres. They often explore the dark side of human nature and the motivations behind why someone would kill another person.
Finally, good murder mysteries typically have a larger cast of characters than other types of mystery stories. This is because each character usually has something to hide, and the murderer is often someone who was least expected.
These elements combine to create a unique and addictive genre that will keep readers guessing and turning pages!
Next, let’s look at the critical aspects of a murder mystery novel.
The Key Elements Of A Murder Mystery
1. Start With A Strong Hook To Capture Your Reader’s Attention
In any good murder mystery, the crime that sets the story in motion needs to be compelling enough to hook the reader from the very first page. After all, once somebody has been murdered, it’s up to the private detective (and the reader) to put together the pieces of who did it and why.
A strong hook will keep readers engaged as they try to solve the puzzle along with the detective.
To be effective, a hook should be mysterious and intriguing, making the reader want to find out more. It should also introduce the key players in the story so that readers have a sense of who they’re rooting for (or against!).
2. The Protagonist Should Be Someone The Reader Can Sympathise With And Root For
In any good murder mystery, the protagonist should be someone with whom the reader can empathise. After all, it’s hard to get invested in a story if you don’t care about the main character!
A sympathetic protagonist gives the reader someone to identify with as they try to solve the mystery. They also provide a human element to the story, making it more relatable and realistic.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the protagonist has to be perfect. In fact, many of the best murder mysteries feature protagonists with flaws and secrets of their own!
3. Create Believable, Complex Characters For The Supporting Cast
The murder victim is only the beginning. Creating a web of complex and believable characters for the rest of the supporting cast is essential to keep readers engaged. Each character should have unique motivations, secrets, and skills that come into play as the story unfolds.
Furthermore, the relationships between these characters should be rich and multi-layered, providing clues and red herrings for the reader to follow.
4. Include A Plot Twist That The Reader Won’t See Coming
A murder mystery is only as good as its plot twist. The best plot twists are entirely unexpected but still make perfect sense retrospectively.
An excellent way to achieve this is to plant false clues throughout the story that point the reader in the wrong direction. This will make the true killer’s identity all the more surprising when it is finally revealed.
5. There Should Be Plenty Of Red Herrings To Keep The Reader Guessing Until The Very End
A murder mystery is not a true mystery if the reader can figure out who did it long before the end of the book.
A key element in writing a successful murder mystery is to include a red herring – a false clue that points the reader in the wrong direction.
These can take many forms, from physical evidence that appears to incriminate a character but is later revealed to be planted, to eyewitnesses who give conflicting testimony.
6. The Ending Should Be Satisfying
A vital element of murder mystery books is that the ending should be satisfying, with all loose ends tied up neatly. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule, but generally, a well-written mystery should provide closure for its readers.
You can achieve this by providing a credible explanation for all of the clues that have been left throughout the story. This not only allows readers to see how everything fits together but also leaves them feeling satisfied that they were able to solve the mystery themselves.
Another way to create a satisfying ending is by ensuring that all of the characters get what they deserve. This means that justice is served and that everyone who played a role in the story gets their comeuppance.
Different Forms Of Murder Mysteries
Murder mystery stories are a popular genre that can be written as novels, short stories, screenplays, stage plays, or even television shows.
While each type of story has distinct benefits, they all share one common goal: to keep the audience guessing about whodunnit!
Let’s take a closer look at the different murder mystery forms.
Murder Mystery Novels
The novel form of a murder mystery allows for more significant character development and a more complex plot than a short story or a screenplay, allowing the reader to delve into all the nuances of each character and their motives.
Murder Mystery Short Stories
A short story is a more concise, focused way of telling a story, with fewer characters and fewer distractions from the central mystery, while centred on the inner workings of a specific character’s mind.
Murder Mystery Screenplays
A screenplay can be an excellent format for a murder mystery, allowing the author to control the pacing and tension of the story. Typically, a script for a film is best suited to fast-paced action and suspense, with an emphasis on characters and visuals. So, a murder mystery script exemplifies the strengths of the subgenre and the screenplay format simultaneously.
Murder Mystery Stage Plays
A stage play is primarily dialogue-driven, which is an excellent format for a story based on a central character interviewing others to determine the culprit.
Murder Mystery TV Shows
Serialised television has always been popular for telling murder mysteries, with shows such as CSI and Law & Order, as it allows for complex plotlines and character development in a short time frame.
Murder Mystery Examples
Knives Out By Rian Johnson (Movie)
This offbeat film, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, follows the investigation into the death of a renowned crime novelist and every shocking twist and intriguing turn keeps you guessing until the end.
And Then There Were None By Agatha Christie (Novel, Movie, Stage Play)
One of the most famous murder mystery novels ever written, this story follows a group of strangers who are invited to an isolated island off the coast of England. Once there, after they are accused of various crimes and murders, they are picked off one by one by an unknown killer. As the body count mounts, the survivors realise that there is no way off the island and that they must find the killer before it’s too late.
Columbo (TV Show)
If you’re a fan of detective shows, you’ve probably seen at least one episode of Columbo. The iconic series starred Peter Falk as a wily police detective who was always one step ahead of the killer. Unlike standard whodunnits, each episode began with the audience knowing who the murderer was, but seeing Columbo piece the clues together was always a delight.
Gone Girl By Gillian Flynn (Novel, Movie)
One of the most popular murder mystery novels in recent years, Gone Girl tells the story of Nick and Amy Dunne, a married couple whose relationship is on the rocks. When Amy goes missing, Nick becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance. As the police investigation unfolds, dark secrets about their marriage are revealed, and it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems.
Hound Of The Baskervilles By Arthur Conan Doyle (Novel, Movie)
This classic story revolves around the investigation of a series of murders committed on the desolate moors of Devonshire. Sherlock Holmes is hired to solve the case, and he quickly realises that the culprit is a large, ferocious hound that has been terrorising the local villagers at the bidding of its secretive master. In the end, Holmes is able to put an end to the murders and uncover the culprit.
Mystery At Rogues’ Roost By Ellery Queen (Short Story)
Rogues’ Roost is a remote and isolated inn, the perfect setting for a murder mystery. When Ellery Queen arrives, he finds that the innkeeper has been killed and the other guests are all suspects. As Ellery begins to investigate, he quickly realises that each of the guests has something to hide. The question is, who is the murderer? Ellery soon discovers that the answer lies in a hidden room at Rogues’ Roost, a room that holds the key to a decades-old mystery.
How To Write A Murder Mystery
Step 1: Determine Your Setting & Main Character
The first step is to determine when, where, and who. Will your story take place in a small town or a big city? On a beach or in the mountains? Is it a period piece or contemporary?
Once you’ve decided on the location, it’s time to introduce your main character. Is she a famous detective or an amateur sleuth? A hard-boiled private investigator or an inquisitive novice? By understanding your protagonist’s motivations and backstory, you’ll be better equipped to write a compelling mystery.
Step 2: Who Is The Victim? What Is The Murder Or Crime Committed?
Is your victim innocent or guilty of misdeeds? Are they a good person or are they thoroughly nasty? How you paint the victim will reflect in how they’re viewed by others, including your readers.
Once you’ve chosen your victim, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of the crime itself. Where did it take place? When? How was the body found? These are all essential details that will help to set the scene. You should also consider what kind of weapon was used and whether any evidence was left at the crime scene.
Step 3: Create A List Of Potential Suspects, Along With Their Motives, Opportunities, And Alibis
The best murder mystery stories always have a large cast of potential suspects. After all, part of the fun is trying to figure out who did it! So, once you’ve decided on your victim and your crime, it’s time to start brainstorming a list of possible killers. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you create your list of suspects:
- Each suspect should have a motive for killing the victim. What would they stand to gain by the victim’s death?
- Each suspect should have an opportunity to commit the crime. Where were they when the crime took place? Do they have access to the murder weapon?
- Each suspect should have some kind of connection to the victim. How do they know each other? What is their relationship like?
- Each suspect should have a seemingly valid alibi for where they were when the crime was committed. Think of each character’s backstory and what they might have been doing at the time.
Always make sure to think about what clues and red herrings you want to include in your story when you are thinking about your suspects!
Step 4: Create A Unique Twist On The Actual Murder
This is where you take the basic concept of the murder and make it your own. It’s essential to come up with something that will surprise your readers and keep them guessing until the big reveal.
One way to do this is to change the motives for the murder. Maybe the victim was killed for insurance money, or maybe there was a love triangle gone wrong.
You can also change the way the murder is carried out. Instead of a bullet to the head, maybe the victim is poisoned or drowned.
Whatever you choose, make sure to include a feeling of improbability or impossibility to the crime. This increases the mystery and engagement!
Step 5: Create A Timeline Of Events
The last step to writing a murder mystery is to create a timeline of events. This may seem daunting, but it’s not as difficult as it sounds. Here are a few tips:
Start by brainstorming a list of all the events that take place in your story, no matter how big or small. Little details matter! Once you have your list, arrange the events in chronological order. If you’re unsure about the order, that’s okay – you can always go back and adjust as needed.
Next, flesh out each event with more details. What happened? Who was involved? Where did it take place? When did it happen? Why did it happen? Answering these questions will help you create a more detailed and believable timeline.
Finally, don’t forget to include clues and red herrings to help keep your story suspenseful and unpredictable!
Tips For Writing A Murder Mystery
- Plan out your ending before you write your story.
- Ensure that everyone in the story is a potential suspect (the main character included!).
- Set your murder mystery story in an exciting or unique location that adds detail to your narrative.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do You Outline A Murder Mystery?
When outlining a murder mystery, it is essential to start with the basics: who was killed, where did the murder take place, and who are the possible suspects? Once you have these crucial elements in place, you can begin to flesh out the story. For example, what was the victim’s relationship with the suspects? What was the motive for the murder? What evidence is there that points to a specific suspect?
How Many Suspects Should You Have In A Mystery Novel?
In a mystery novel, the number of suspects is important. Too few suspects, and the reader may feel that the answer is obvious. Too many suspects, on the other hand, can make the ending feel contrived. The key is to find the right balance. Ultimately, the story’s plot will determine the number of suspects. However, as a general rule, having at least three suspects is advisable. This will give the reader enough options to consider without making the mystery too convoluted.
Murder Mystery Writing
If you’re excited to try your hand at writing murder mystery stories, start with a great hook that will capture your reader’s attention. Once you have them hooked, include plenty of plot twists and red herrings to keep them guessing until the very end. And don’t forget to create relatable characters that your readers will love (or love to hate!).
With these tips in mind, you’re ready to write murder mysteries that will keep your readers glued to the page. Ready, set, solve!
Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers, providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter. For more writing articles, take a look at our blog page.