Saturday, November 27, 2010

Starting your mystery novel can be murder

One of the great things about being an author is that I get to meet so many talented writers, both published and not-yet-published. We ask each other everything under the sun, but one of the most common questions in the mystery genre is how to begin plotting the story. Murder mysteries aren’t like most other tales of fiction because they almost always contain the additional element of an investigation that has to make some kind of logical sense. Many murder mysteries provide clues for the readers so that they can guess who the killer is, and those clues have to make sense as well. As if that’s not enough, the mystery has to be sufficiently difficult (or interesting) to hold the reader’s attention. So where does the plotting of such a tale begin?

Every writer has a different way of doing things, so this blog will only suggest a few. If the ideas presented here sound valid, please feel free to give them a try. If not, please round-file them; after all, writing is a very individual thing and what works for one writer may not work at all for another. Additionally, this is a blog about how to begin plotting the basic concept or outline of a mystery tale and so it shouldn’t be confused with the actual opening or first lines of that book, which is a different topic altogether.

One place to start your plotting is the investigator. This is a good technique because it automatically directs the story in one of two different directions: Amateur or professional. If the investigator is a professional, his or her involvement in a murder probe needs little explanation. If the investigator is an amateur, the question of why they’re looking into this particular killing probably requires an answer. Plotting that begins with the investigator can also lend itself to a more character-driven piece, particularly if the individual(s) looking into the killing are the story’s main focus.

Not all novels are character-driven, however. In a more thematic approach, the author might begin by choosing some ideas or topics to thread into the storyline. For example, if you’d like your story to suggest that the forces of law and order are just as crooked as your outrightly criminal characters, special attention might be required in choosing the setting and circumstances of the murder and its investigation. After all, there really is a reason so many great noir mysteries are set in big cities with authority-hating gumshoes as main characters.

As for me, I prefer to start my plotting with the murder itself. This approach makes me identify the motive for the killing early in the process, but that’s all right. Knowing the motive right from the start allows the writer to get into the killer’s mind that much faster, and it also raises the issue of how the killer might keep that motive from being discovered.

Starting with the murder itself often leads to two important ways the killer can be found out: What (if anything) they did to prepare for the act, and what steps they took to hide their involvement once the deed was done. This thought process also separates the murder into two categories: Premeditated and not premeditated.

In the case of the planned murder, the perpetrator might have done many things to get ready, or to create the circumstances where the killing took place. An investigator finding evidence of those acts (indications that someone had been following the victim, for example) has at least uncovered evidence suggesting that this was in fact a murder. Further digging into those preparatory movements can cross potential suspects off the list (unless, of course, the killer wasn’t working alone) and even lead to uncovering the murderer. Regardless of the level of preparation, the killer might also have left vital clues in an attempt to cover his or her tracks.

Which leads us to the unplanned killing. Despite the absence of preparation, there are still possible clues prior to the spur-of-the-moment murder. Motive can be one of them, as the individual who suddenly commits homicide usually has an overwhelming reason to do so—often recognizing, too late, just how obvious a suspect he or she might be. That, of course, would then prompt them to do something to get their names off that suspect list. Crafting an alibi (which can also create a conspirator-after-the-fact who may or may not hold that information over the killer) or pointing the authorities at someone else are just two of the many things the murderer might try. No matter what the perpetrator might do to hide his or her involvement, an investigator discovering those efforts would probably put the killer back on the suspect list—maybe at the very top.

Regardless of how you choose to begin plotting your story, a generic timeline can be a handy tool. In its most rudimentary form, this can be as simple as a piece of paper showing that the investigation starts sometime after the murder. Don’t laugh; pondering those two points in time can really get your plotting started. They raise interesting considerations such as whether or not there’s a dead body (otherwise this case might start out as a missing person, a potential kidnapping, or a simple runaway), if there are concrete indications that this was a murder (as opposed to a suicide or an accident), and just how much time has elapsed before the investigators became involved. Slowly filling in the events surrounding these two moments in time can be a very good way to start plotting your mystery.

Hopefully this didn’t sound like a series of yes / no items like choosing between first-person and third-person and deciding whether or not to tell the reader who the killer is. The point is that if you’re having trouble getting your mystery plotting started, going over these basic ideas can really get the brainstorming rolling. And once that happens, you’re on your way.


  1. Keeping track of what's going on when in my current story is a little difficult, since in addition to protagonist and antagonist, there's a secondary bad guy who is complicating matters for both of them. About half way through, I printed a week's worth of blank calendar pages started filling in "appointments" for the events so I could be sure that I had things in the correct order.

  2. I love it -- speaking as an obsessive outliner and matrix-maker, I really like your calendar approach.