Whatever you do, do not go around poking your nose into a writer’s Google search, especially if they write crime fiction.
Are you puzzled? Don’t be, once I serve all the tips on how to write a murder mystery, you will be informed enough to understand why their Google search results might be full of horrible criminal cases.
Murder mysteries aren’t any different from other stories when it comes to plot and story elements, but murder mysteries have other elements that make them unique.
Apart from the usual elements such as setting, characters, tension, and conflict, murder mystery writers are good at doing a few more things. These things are the special sauce ingredients that I’m going to reveal in this article.
Let’s get started.
What Is a Murder Mystery?
I do not think that murder mystery as a genre can be put in a definitive container; rather, we can try to outline the basic structure/skeleton. In some stories, there’s a murder or a string of them, and the story takes the reader on a journey to find the killer(s).
The exciting part of this is that there are a lot of hidden things or themes, clues, twists, and turns until the end of the story.
The Origins of Murder Mystery Stories
The origins of contemporary murder mystery fiction can be traced back to the 19th century, when The Murders in the Rue Morgue, written by Edgar Allan Poe, was published in 1841.
After that story was published, other writers penned similar murder mystery novels, which, along with Poe’s book, can be said to carry the modern murder mystery blueprint. Stories by writers such as Wilkie Collins, who wrote Moonstone in 1868, and Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes, are go-to murder mysteries for writers who want to delve deep into the art of crafting murder mystery fiction.
Of course, we cannot forget the queen of murder mysteries, Agatha Christie. Christie’s works are only behind the Bible and Shakespeare’s works in the best-selling rankings, and she is the best-selling novelist of all time. Agatha’s contribution to modern detective fiction is immense and can take a whole book to explain, but among her many astounding feats is the writing of a play titled The Mousetrap in 1952. The play was performed a record-breaking 8,862 times at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, and still holds the record as the longest-running show in the West End (London) with 28,735 performances.
How to Write a Murder Mystery
Writing a murder mystery can be a fun and exciting way to explore the world of crime in fictitious settings.
Although you can do it in many different ways, some things can make your murder mystery story way better than others.
This is the part where I reveal the ingredients in the special sauce—the part where I reveal the things that can make your novel unputdownable.
Here are the tips and tricks that can help you write a good murder mystery.
Be the Murderer!
Yes, you read that right. You have to know everything that the murderer knows. This is one of those times when being a planner is advantageous because you have to have all of the killer’s details in one place. You have to go into the killer’s life and mind and understand why they do what they do.
No matter how good of a writer you are, without research, you’re going to get a lot of things wrong, and for well-read readers, your story is only going to stink of amateurism.
For you to fully be “the murderer,” you have to do a lot of research. You have to know ways of killing people, weapons of choice for certain killers, a bit of chemistry, and anything that can kill or be used to kill a person.
Read widely and study great writers such as Agatha Christie to gain a deep understanding of the types of effective writing. You can also get inspiration and avoid clichés by reading stories in this genre that are similar to your story ideas.
I’m sorry, pantsers, but I’m not on your side in this article. You have to outline both your killer and your detective (or whoever is playing the protagonist).
These are not the only outlines that your story will need, but in this context, let’s go with them. The murderer’s outline can include clues and hints, while the protagonist can include the things that will help figure out those clues and hints.
The details in the outlines will aid in sorting out the story as either the murderer or the protagonist.
Create a Killer Premise
You can’t only focus on the murder part and ignore that a murder mystery story is still a story. It has to incorporate the same elements that generally make stories good.
Start with an interesting and unique premise for your story. This could be a specific setting, such as a small town or a prestigious boarding school, or a particular type of crime, such as a murder committed during a high-stakes poker game.
Create compelling and well-developed characters, including the victim, the suspect, and the detective who is tasked with solving the crime.
Be sure to give each character their own motivations, secrets, and quirks to make them interesting and believable.
Make Everyone a Suspect
In a murder mystery, nothing is more boring than an obvious perp. If your readers can figure out the murderer before the story even gets to the “good part,” it’s no longer a murder mystery—it’s just a murder!
To make the story a mystery, you have to put a skeleton in everyone’s closet. Give the pastor a criminal background, the widowed neighbor an abusive husband who died mysteriously, or the doctor who’s blamed for the death of one of his former patients.
You can create a timeline of events leading up to the murder and create motives for each of the suspects.
Whatever you think, just find a reason to make everyone seem suspicious.
Come Up with Clues
There are clues and red herrings that you can utilize to either lead the readers to the killer or keep them searching in the wrong place.
Types of mystery clues include physical clues, biological clues, psychological clues, timing clues, clues of omission, background information, and timing clues.
These clues will help both the story’s sleuth and readers unravel the mystery and find the killer(s). The significance of these clues might be realized early in the story or at the end of it.
Introduce the suspects and the clues as the story progresses. You’ll want to introduce the clues and red herrings that point to the suspects’ guilt or innocence. And, since everyone is a suspect, make sure to sprinkle these throughout the story and keep the reader guessing about who the real culprit is.
When crafting the murder scene, be sure to provide enough detail to establish the setting and give the reader a sense of what happened, but leave out key details to create a sense of mystery.
Work on Your Writing
Use descriptive language to create a vivid and immersive setting. Practice writing regularly, whether it’s every day or a few times a week, to improve your skills and develop your writing style.
Working on your writing applies to all types of writers, not just murder mystery writers. So, as general advice, continue to learn and grow as a writer by attending workshops, participating in writing groups, and staying up-to-date on the latest developments in your field.
Being a good writer takes time, effort, and dedication, but with practice and persistence, anyone can improve their writing skills.
The Key Elements of a Murder Mystery
A murder mystery typically includes a murder, a detective or investigator who is trying to solve the crime, and a suspect or group of suspects.
And as I said in the tips, a murder mystery must also include clues and evidence, red herrings and other twists, and a final revelation or twist that reveals the true culprit. In addition, a murder mystery often has a compelling and suspenseful storyline with a range of characters who may have motives to commit the crime.
What’s a murder mystery without the murder? Having said that, I should add that not every story that has a murder in it qualifies to be called a murder mystery.
There are other detective novels and crime novels that have murders in them but shouldn’t be mistaken for murder mysteries. Also, I should emphasize once more that you can have a mystery that does not involve a murder (something other than a “murder mystery”); it can be any other type of crime or non-crime mystery. It could be a classic or traditional mystery, noir, supernatural, cozy, or another type of mystery.
2. The Suspect
This, again, is another obvious element because we need the perpetrator. The murder needs a victim and killer(s); yes, it sounds like kindergarten knowledge, but having the tips above, you know that getting to the killer is not that easy.
You have to go through a slew of suspects to find the perp or person who committed the crime. Although the killer is the other main character in the story (besides the sleuth), he or she is typically unknown at the start of the story.
The story often concludes with the perpetrator being identified and brought to justice, but you can also reveal the culprit earlier; you just have to be a literary genius to keep the mystery going.
3. The Sleuth
The story typically follows a detective or group of detectives as they investigate the crime and try to uncover the identity of the perpetrator.
The investigation typically involves gathering clues, interviewing suspects, and using logic and reasoning to piece together the events leading up to the crime.
Crime Fiction Subgenres
Crime fiction is a broad genre that includes many subgenres. Some common subgenres of crime fiction include:
- The hard-boiled private investigator genre: this is a type of crime fiction that features a protagonist who works as a private investigator (sometimes a tough, cynical, lone wolf). These stories often take place in urban settings and explore themes of corruption, moral ambiguity, and the blurred lines between good and evil. This is a classic crime fiction subgenre and has been featured in many novels, movies, and television shows.
- General Suspense Thriller: This subgenre often features an ordinary character who has to solve a crime merely because he/she was involved in it, he/she wants to prove her/his innocence, or because their moral campus tells them that the perp has to pay for their crime.
- Legal thriller: This subgenre centers around the legal system and may involve a trial or other legal proceedings.
- Police procedural: A police procedural thriller focuses on the inner workings of a police department and the processes involved in solving a crime. These stories often follow a team of law enforcement officers as they gather evidence, interview suspects, and piece together the events of a crime. It often has settings such as courtrooms, morgues, and police squad rooms. Police procedural thrillers often involve a high level of attention to detail and realism, and may include technical and forensic information about the investigation process.
- Cozy mystery: This subgenre is characterized by its focus on small towns, amateur sleuths, and a lack of graphic violence or sexual content.
- Military thriller: A military thriller focuses on military conflict, espionage, and other aspects of national security
- Medical thrillers: These stories often revolve around the medical field and may involve themes of scientific experimentation, medical ethics, and life-and-death situations.
- Forensic Thriller: A forensic thriller focuses on forensic science and investigation techniques to solve a crime or mystery. These stories often involve detectives, forensic scientists, or other law enforcement professionals who use forensic evidence such as DNA, fingerprints, or ballistics to piece together the events of a crime and identify the perpetrator. They also explore the ethical and legal issues surrounding the use of forensic evidence.
To be a murder mystery writer such as Louise Penny, you will need to do the same things you do with other types of stories: come up with a plot, create a compelling premise, construct the setting, develop interesting characters, build suspense and tension throughout the story, etc. But a murder mystery has to be a story that keeps the reader guessing until the very end.
With a little practice and creativity, you can write a murder mystery that will keep your readers guessing until the very end.