Writing a Whodunit Isn’t Much of a Mystery


whodunit

I recently completed an article on cardiovascular health for a trade journal. To begin the process, I researched the necessary information and laid it out in outline form to see what I would use and what I would discard. Once I used some research, I drew a line through the paragraph or section with strikethrough. Anything I didn’t use I simply deleted.

You can utilize a similar process to write a mystery novel. There are some necessary steps in that process and I’ll touch on a few basics here to get you started:

Plot out the novel

This is an opportunity to put your ideas to paper. What kind of murder? How many people involved? What’s the murder weapon? Location of the murder? Setting (time period or locale) of the book? It might help to draw a map of the area(s) where the story takes place, as it will provide you with a sense of direction (north, south, etc.) and landscape (or seascape) when moving characters around. Don’t forget about seasons/climate, year/century, and overall mood (feeling) of the locations.

Opening hook

You need an opening hook that grabs readers and makes them want to read more of the book. I prefer a shorter first chapter that includes the hook, the protagonist(s) or antagonist(s) (or both, depending on the storyline) and a bit of mystery about what is to unfold:

“She stuck her perky titties in his face; he pretended to display a modicum of interest. He knew what she wanted; he knew she was hungry for him. She tossed her shoulder length blonde hair from side to side, waving her golden locks like a flag in the wind to garner his attention. She playfully brushed his muscular arm as she feigned interest in the fabric of his jersey. Instead, he was focused on the nondescript woman sitting in the far corner of the local watering hole. She’d been coming in regularly on Thursday nights, he recently noticed, and always alone. She sat in a quiet corner behind the bar that gave her the broadest view of the goings-on of the locals. It appeared she was taking notes.” (Rescue on White Thunder, 2012, all rights reserved.)

Based on this opening paragraph, this was the review left by a noted author (for which I was ever grateful):
“Despite the hilarious opening line, this is not that kind of book. It really is a good, serious story. At first I thought ‘chick-lit’ but it really isn’t and the characters, plot and story continue to grow throughout. I don’t know exactly where I couldn’t put it aside, but it happened. There is some really good American Indian lore that I hadn’t heard before as well.”

Build your characters

What does your protagonist or antagonist look like? How do they act/speak? Any quirks? Do you describe secondary characters enough for readers to know them? Good physical descriptions provide a visual image for the reader but personality, attitude and other intangibles are important as well:

“Leonard Laughing Bear is a six-foot man in his mid-fifties with a stout build and broad shoulders designed for carrying the weight of the world.  Hair as thick as a Berber carpet flows freely down his back and is streaked with gray between strands of deep black. The lines on his face are a roadmap to the life history of an experienced elder. His left knee is bowed outward so when he walks he tilts a little to the left. His eyes are small, dark beads that glow with an intensity and hint of a deeper knowing, and are bordered by prominent cheekbones that seem carved from rock. He is a soft-spoken man with a velvety-toned voice that draws people in to listen attentively. He is a gifted storyteller.” (Rescue on White Thunder, 2012, all rights reserved.)

Mishaps, obstacles, and red herrings

These are the “monkey wrenches” you throw into the story to mislead or move the protagonist(s) and/or antagonist(s) in different directions. Don’t get wrapped up in too much misdirection, it will move you further from the heart of the story and you may confuse or lose the reader.

“6:30 am: The explosion reverberated throughout the house. Braddock flew out of his chair at the breakfast table and Jim sprung to his feet, knocking his chair to the floor, both of them spilling their mugs of coffee. Smoke perked up his ears, looked around, and howled as Annie froze in front of the stove, her eyes wide with fright. Wolf, working in the garage, was knocked backward as the ground shuddered and shook. He had a bad feeling in his gut so he ran to his trailer, grabbed his survival pack, and ran to the main house.” (Rescue on White Thunder, 2012, all rights reserved.)

The arc of the story

 This is how the plot progresses through the novel. There are  eight stages of a story plot, according to Wikihow:

  • Stasis – the normal, everyday life of the person whose point of view you’re using to tell the story
  • Trigger – this is the event that sets everything in motion
  • The quest – this is the murder or murder mystery
  • Surprise – these are the twists and turns, the complications (“monkey wrenches”) that keep the story going; most important to keep movement in the story to keep the reader’s attention
  • Critical choice – this is where the protagonist(s) must decide how to act, often faced with a hard path; it can be a defining moment for the character and tends to lead to the climax
  • Climax – where the murder is solved and murderer is caught
  • Reversal and resolution – these represent how the characters have changed and what their “new normal” looks like after the crime has been committed and suspect caught

Remember to keep the readers guessing throughout the novel (hence the movement of storyline and characters). As I mentioned in a previous post, start at the end (the murder, the location, evidence, etc.) and work backwards; take the story apart, scatter the evidence and details around (but not too much), then slowly piece them back together to create a full picture.

Mystery solved.

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