Recently I had to admit that my current writing project is, at its heart, a murder mystery. Which would have been fine except I had no idea how to write a murder mystery!
Oh, sure, there were the periods of my life where I binge-read Donna Andrews or Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels (it was actually an Elizabeth Peters book that got me writing in the first place), but that didn’t mean I had any idea how to actually put together a cohesive mystery.
This led me to invest some time into figuring out what the plot structure of a murder mystery looked like and I thought I’d share what I learned.
First of all, when writing a mystery, you have to know what ending you’re writing to. I suppose it’s possible to write a mystery with no idea of what ending you were working toward, but it’s going to require a lot of revision to fit in the clues.
Once you know the ending, you can figure out where the story begins and what is going to hook your reader into the story. This is often an interesting character or an unusual setting or a unique situation—basically anything that intrigues the reader enough to get them interested in the story.
Following the hook, something has to happen that upsets the usual balance of the main character’s world. This is the plot turn 1. (Often this point is called a plot point, but I prefer the word “turn” since the idea of things changing is more inherent.) In a detective story, this can be the first clue they have that a seemingly simple tailing-of-a-cheating-spouse is something more than it seems (eg, Bad Business by Robert B. Parker) or they’re asked to look into a case that was closed years ago by the person convicted of the crime (A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton). It can be just about anything that changes the normal course of events for the main character.
After the first plot turn comes what Dan Wells calls thepinch. (And if you haven’t seen his 7-point plot structure on YouTube, you really should. It’s fabulous.) In my mind, I tend to refer to this as the moment when the bad guys prove that they are bad. This is the point where the antagonist shows that they are a force to be reckoned with. Often, this is the point when an actual murder takes place.
The next major plot point is the midpoint. At this point in a murder mystery, this is the point when the main character decides they are going to solve this murder and find out who did it. In a typical plot structure, the midpoint usually comes somewhere near the middle of the book, as you might have guessed by the term “midpoint.” In a murder mystery, though, this point comes much earlier. For example, in A Is for Alibi, Kinsey Millhone accepts the case on page 25. In Bad Business, Spenser agrees to investigate the murder on page 55. Both of these books are a little over 300 pages, which puts the midpoint well before the middle of the book.
Another pinch follows the midpoint. This is the point where, once again, the antagonist shows that they are a real threat to the protagonist. Often, this is another murder, but it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be something to show that the main character is at risk and be something that ups the tension in the story.
Another plot turn happens after the pinch. This is where the protagonist gets the information they need to finally solve the crime. While this can be a single moment, this is usually spread over several scenes in a mystery as the main character gathers information bit by bit.
Then, finally, you can reach the resolution you planned back as your very first step in plotting out your mystery.
You might have noticed, though, there’s about 80% of the book that happens between the midpoint and the resolution. So besides the pinch and the second plot turn, what fills up that space? This is where you get to play with the proverbial red herring and provide the reader with clues and information intended to distract them. Often, there is also some kind of secondary plot happening in a mystery to confuse the reader about what is really going on.
I am not an outliner by nature, but finally sitting down and plotting out my book, including the main plot points and the distractions and red herrings, has made a huge difference in wrangling this book into shape. For one thing, it’s so much easier to rearrange scenes in an outline form than it is to rearrange scenes after they’ve been written. If you are writing a mystery, I highly encourage you to learn from my mistakes and outline the whole story as early as possible.
But the one thing that writers should avoid doing in a mystery is withholding information from the reader to try to prolong tension. One mystery I looked at had the first person narrator spend a couple pages with this mysterious woman before the narrator called the woman, “Mother.” It was cheap and made me doubt the writer’s ability to be upfront and honest with me as a reader. So don’t withhold information. If the main character knows something, the reader should know it as well.
Have you ever written a mystery? Do you have any tips or advice for me? And do you have any favorite mysteries that I should put on my to-read list?
Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.