How To Write A Murder Mystery

How To Write A Murder Mystery

The murder mystery genre’ is​ alive and well and living at​ an​ on-line bookstore just a​ mouse click away. How is​ it​ that this over-utilized method of​ story-telling has remained so fresh and compelling after well over a​ hundred years? The answer lies in​ the basics of​ writing.

Grab Them Where it​ Hurts and Their Minds Will Follow

An author must first and foremost always tell a​ compelling story, involving, to​ one extent or​ another, recognizable three-dimensional characters. The fact that the story takes place against an​ otherwise formulaic backdrop, involving the effort to​ solve a​ murder mystery is​ just icing on the cake.

A reader needs to​ care about at​ least one of​ three people: the person who was murdered; the murderer; or​ the person searching for the murderer. Unless the reader can identify with at​ least one of​ them, the story will generally not coalesce. Reading a​ book utilizes our time, and in​ the modern world, that is​ frequently our most precious resource. The author must have a​ compelling answer to​ the question: why should I waste my time reading your novel?

The answer to​ that question is​ that the story is​ about someone the reader will find quite interesting: himself. The reader needs to​ recognize parts of​ himself in​ one or​ more of​ the characters. Though he will see them in​ situations that are different from his every day life, he needs the opportunity to​ ponder whether he would react the same way under those circumstances?

The Murder Mystery Must be Solvable Only When the Story is​ Concluding

Readers love to​ guess at​ the ‘who done it’ aspect of​ a​ murder mystery. Yet they are generally disappointed if​ they can figure out the answer too easily, or​ at​ least too early in​ the story.

Life is​ about obscurity. We never really know the secrets held by the people around us, even our most trusted loved ones. That is​ what makes murder mysteries so compelling: in​ truth, our own lives are informed by mysteries that are never solved.

Yet, unlike real life, in​ the novel everything is​ explained by its conclusion. Hence, we find comfort in​ the difference between our real lives and the novel; the satisfaction of​ finding out the answer. Psychoanalysts have a​ term for this: repetition compulsion. it​ is​ the need to​ duplicate the essence of​ an​ earlier trauma and this time, control the outcome. The reader knows there are secrets being withheld by the author, but unlike in​ the messy and traumatic chaos of​ real life, if​ she reads on to​ the end, all will be explained.

Those Who Can Teach, Write

Some of​ the best murder mysteries involve discourses on unrelated esoteric topics. This usually leads the reader to​ learn some obscure subject matter having nothing to​ do with the murder itself.

The act of​ reading involves a​ commitment to​ inhabit the mind and feelings of​ another person. Sometimes, that person’s expertise and erudition is​ an​ integral part of​ understanding them. Hence, in​ the course of​ reading a​ murder mystery, one might learn the evolutionary symbiosis between butterflies and orchids; the esoterica of​ military strategy and tactics of​ the Civil War; or​ the protocols for DNA identification of​ human remains.

Another example is​ that in​ my recent novel, Point and Shoot, I discussed the subtle intersection of​ the internal and external martial arts, using the Okinawan art of​ Shaolin Kempo Karate and the Chinese art of​ Tai Chi Chuan as​ an​ illustration:

I went to​ the dressing room and put on a​ Kung Fu uniform that I always used for Tai Chi Chuan practice: simple, loose black pants and jacket with a​ white collar. When I taught Kempo, I would wear the black Karate uniform with the rainbow of​ fighting animal patches and under that, the black belt with six stripes, but for Tai Chi, this understated garb was the uniform of​ the day. it​ was a​ tacit reminder that, although admittedly they were both derived from the same original Chinese Shaolin Temple forms, the two arts had developed in​ wholly distinct ways. Diverging branches from the same tree.

My practice of​ Kempo Karate had been merely adequate through my mid-adolescence. I had dutifully memorized the movements and their names, making my way up through the belt rankings. in​ five years, I had reached brown belt level. However, like so many martial arts students at​ that rank, I felt discouraged by the fact that I performed the movements so inadequately when compared to​ the black belts. I had reached technical proficiency, but that was all. There was obviously something more, and I had no idea what that might be.

I shared my misgivings with Grandfather, and he suggested that I learn the basic 24 posture Tai Chi short form and after that, the 108 posture long form. at​ first, I simply learned the Tai Chi as​ I would any other Kempo form. in​ fact, the postures and strikes were very similar to​ the crane form I knew so well from Kempo Karate. I executed them the same way: with focused force, albeit at​ a​ slower pace.

But over time, he painstakingly helped me unlearn everything he had taught me about the Kempo. it​ was a​ very Eastern undertaking: a​ Master taking his disciple back to​ the beginning to​ start fresh. This was the man who had taught me to​ move with blinding speed, now urging me to​ slow down; who had taught me to​ strike with devastating, focused power, now urging me to​ be soft and gentle with those same movements; who had taught me to​ prevail decisively over my attackers, now urging me to​ yield to​ the attack. in​ short, it​ was the man who taught me the external aspect of​ the Kempo, now helping me switch to​ the internal.

It was the hardest thing I ever learned, mostly because it​ involved unlearning. But I stuck with it, and eventually, it​ started to​ come to​ me. I began to​ immerse myself in​ the river of​ the Tai Chi form. I began to​ move with the flow and relaxation I had often read about in​ the writings of​ the ancient Chinese masters, but had never understood. And my martial arts practice finally started to​ blossom.

The Tai Chi enhanced my Kempo Karate into something beyond simple punching and kicking. I began to​ understand the difference between learning the martial arts and being a​ martial artist. I had spent so many years memorizing the Kempo combinations and forms with my head, so much time training my hands and feet to​ execute them, that I had completely neglected to​ apply the most important part of​ my body: the heart. I had never connected with the martial arts as​ a​ passion, a​ life enhancing undertaking. Like Grandfather had.

After that, he suggested I re-learn the entire Kempo Karate system from white belt on up. They were the same Kempo combinations and animal forms, but now they felt and looked different. it​ was like first learning a​ beautiful poem through translation, and then because you loved it​ so much, re-learning it​ in​ the original tongue. I was finally learning Shaolin Kempo Karate in​ its original tongue.

I still cannot adequately define what exactly changed. But somehow, I had tied into something deep and eternal. I had developed a​ balance and centering that extended well beyond my practice of​ the martial arts. I found myself becoming a​ different person: less angry, less anxious, more forgiving and embracing of​ other's failings, their weaknesses. in​ a​ word, the internal arts enhanced me.


In essence, a​ murder mystery should be a​ story that could stand alone without the murder and without the mystery. The characters should not be tangential to​ the story, but instead, drive it​ forward. They should at​ least have some characteristics with which the reader can identify. in​ other words, the reader must care enough about these characters to​ want to​ stick around and solve the mystery.

How To Write A Murder Mystery

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