Plotting a Murder Mystery

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.

how-to

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?

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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.

The Gift of Red Herrings

Every birthday as I’m handed gifts and cards from my loved ones, I get excited! My favorite part is the element of surprise of what’s in the bag. I’m not one that usually dives right into the gift. I examine everything. The bag, the color of tissue paper, if the bag rattles, or holds a distinct smell. I love the experience of watching people’s reactions as I open the presents, and let the gift linger in my hand for a minute so I can process the thought behind it. I love the whole thing.

When you’re writing suspense or mystery, your job as the writer is to give the reader this beautiful gift—your story. You provide little snippets or clues as to what’s in the present that you’re protagonist is about to open and dive in to. We call these beauties red herrings.

What is a Red Herring?  It’s a narrative element put in place to misguide readers, leading them to false conclusions. Its purpose is to divert attention away from the object or person of interest. This makes the element of surprise that much more exciting as the book comes to a conclusion.

One of my favorite games is Clue. Each character has red herrings by giving them all a motive. They’re given an object or weapon, and they have completely different character traits that stand out from one another. Some characters visibly don’t get along, while others pretend to play nice and they’re all placed together for a lovely party at Mr. Boddy’s mansion. And that’s when things get tricky. The lights go out and everyone is a suspect. Who’s actually using the weapon of choice for protection, or to kill everyone out of the game?

Let’s take this one step at a time. First, we have our characters. They all have something to possibly gain from the crime, leading the reader to question all of them. Which side are they on? Who are they playing against and who are they collaborating with? A lot of times the reader thinks they know what’s going on behind the story, only to be thrown the ultimate reveal far from what they expected.

Next, we have setting. If a character is being questioned, they need a place as an alibi. What might the investigator learn as he goes to check out the location?  Who would be most comfortable in that setting or environment? Is the time of day, the weather, or the time of year important to the case? Is it a coincidence that three females, living one block from each other, all were abducted at exactly 11:00 a.m.? Make the reader question the significance of where the crime took place also.

Now, we need objects. You can play with objects that appear in the scene or ones that don’t. What does the investigator see at the crime scene? What doesn’t he see? Who accidentally, or on purpose, left a gold ring next to the victim’s favorite book? Is it symbolic that the gold ring was placed by something the victim held so dear? Maybe upon close investigation, page thirty five was torn from the book. How does that tie into the case and who removed the page? Who would have motivation to do so?

Example: A glass of 2% milk is half full at the victim’s apartment. Doesn’t seem like a big clue, but what if the investigator searches her kitchen further and sees cartons of soy and coconut milk in the fridge and pantry. Maybe she’s lactose intolerant. Who was the person who visited her house drinking the 2% milk and were they the killer? If not, why did they flee?

Example: Sally is opening a lovely gift only to have a balloon pop. She diverts her attention to the balloon and before she knows it, her package goes off. It’s a bomb.

Word of caution is if you bring in an object or a character as a red herring, you must come back to it shortly after you introduce it or them into your story.

Pretend you’re Mrs. Scarlet or Mr. Green, and it’s your birthday. What gifts might you open to help direct you to solve the crime? Or what little treats may be your ticket to hiding your true identity?
Have fun bringing in those red herrings to make your reader question every part of the mystery you’re unfolding on the pages for them!

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Lauri Schoenfeld’s first love is her little clan of three silly kidlets and her wonderful hubby, Andy. Writing is a close second. She began writing poems at the age of nine, and her love for literature and music developed into composing thirty songs.  In 2014 her short story, Christmas Treasure, was featured in an anthology called, Angels from their Realms of Story.  Her favorite genre to write is anything dark, psychological, and suspenseful, but she enjoys expanding her horizons and dipping her feet in other genres as well.  Lauri teaches summer writing classes for kids and mentors teens throughout the year. She’s a Child Abuse and Scoliosis Survivor. Lauri runs a group for teen girls with Scoliosis called, The S Squad. Their motto is Strength, Support and Self Confidence.  She’s been known to dance around the house with a spoon as her microphone and sneak toppings from the ice cream bar. Lauri’s taken online classes at the Institute of Children’s Literature and was the President of the League of Utah Writers, Oquirrh Chapter for two years.  She’s a member of Crime Writers and International Thriller Writers.