Understanding The Essentials Of Writing A Murder Mystery

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There’s nothing quite like a murder mystery, with its blend of high stakes, high tension, and the ability to personally involve the reader as a detective. The best murder mysteries blend the feeling of a great read with the feeling of playing a game. Can the reader figure out the solution before it’s revealed?

But with any game, it’s essential that both sides know the rules. For all the variety murder mysteries offer, there are a few cast iron conditions that authors need to respect.

Happily I’ve collected them here, along with some tips and tricks for writing the kind of murder mystery that leaves a reader thrillingly outfoxed. The best of which is…

Plot backwards

Of course, the easiest way to ensure your mystery works is to begin with the solution and work backwards. It’s far easier to work out ‘how would the killer hide this weapon?’ than ‘how do I make it so the weapon can’t be found?’

Decide who committed the crime, how they did it, and why. Then you can work out how they’d try to cover it up, who might see them, or who they might tell. Once the killer’s path is decided, you can bring in the detective. Now you know how the clues might link together. These are the important points between which you’ll write the detective’s path.

To write a great murder mystery, consider plotting backwards. Click To Tweet

I always know the end of the mystery before I begin to write. Tension should he held within the novel and there should be no longuers of boring interrogation.
– P.D. James

The benefit of this method is that you’ll always be writing to justify the conclusion. Plotting forwards means that by the time you reach the mystery’s conclusion, you’ll have a hundred little details that the solution has to take into account. By deciding on the conclusion first, you flip this, so that the little details are written to fit the most important part of the story.

Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.
– Mickey Spillane

Because you know exactly where you’re going before you start writing, it’ll be far easier to include subtle clues the master detective can pick up on. Those who plot forwards end up traipsing their criminals around various locations to support the clues they’ve already written, making the crime more and more unbelievable. Those who plot backwards know where their criminals have been, what they’ve done, and so can decide on believable clues that make sense once the conclusion is revealed.

Realization not revelation

The key to a great murder mystery is the belief that a sufficiently diligent reader could solve the case. That’s not to say that the reader actually can solve the mystery, just that they believe they could if they spent a bit more time thinking about it.

Every man at the bottom of his heart believes that he is a born detective.
– John Buchan

When the mystery’s solution is announced, the reader needs to be able to trace the story back and recognize a path they believe they could have followed. The fact that the detective put the clues together when they couldn’t is what makes the character impressive. On the other hand, a detective who has access to information the reader didn’t will be considered a cheat, and their writer along with them.

Solutions which feel like new and surprising information are momentarily impressive but then leave the reader feeling cheated, asking ‘how was I supposed to solve that?’ The answer to the mystery needs to feel like realization, not revelation.

The answer to the mystery needs to feel like realization, not revelation. Click To Tweet

One method which can help you to avoid a revelatory ending is having your detective arrive at the answer through logic accessible to the reader. The Detection Club, a 1930s group made up of prominent British mystery writers such as Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton, codified this in their oath:

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?

What this means is that the detective should arrive at the mystery’s solution through a process that feels accessible to the reader. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a clairvoyant detective interrogate ghosts, just that the reader needs to hear everything the spirits have to say.

The detective cannot suddenly know a key detail, they can’t ‘just have a feeling’ that they should check somewhere, because this amounts to hiding details from the reader. Even if the detective finds new information by logical means (such as running to the library) it’ll still feel like cheating if you don’t share it with the reader.

In a murder mystery these story details usually take the form of clues. Happily, it’s easy to write the sort of clues that lead to a realization while still making your detective look like a genius.

The importance of clues

Making your conclusion a realization depends on making clues feel apparent in retrospect. Of course you don’t want clues to stand out as the reader encounters them, that’s a procedural story not a mystery, so importance has to be added in retrospect. This can be done through foreshadowing, where the author drops subtle clues about future events in a seemingly innocuous way.

Distract your reader as you scatter clues to prevent them figuring things out too soon.Click To Tweet

Any clue essential to solving the mystery has to be described or detailed in some way so that when it’s brought back, it feels like a memory rather than a new invention. The more innocuous the reference the better; relevant clues can even be hidden in longer descriptions packed with details, all you need to do is make sure that when the detective establishes a detail was relevant, the reader understands that this is a detail they were aware of, however briefly.

The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
– S.S. Van Dine, Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories (Rule #1)

This is also the case for the murderer (or murderers), who should generally be introduced to the reader within the first third of the book. Any later and the reader will be left with the feeling that they weren’t given time to solve the mystery and you were hiding key information.

To paraphrase a theatrical observation made by Anton Chekhov, if a gun is shown to the audience in the first act, it better be fired by someone in the third act. Likewise, if a gunshot rings out in the third act, we better have known [the gun] was in the room or on a particular person’s body in the first act.
– Christina Hamlett

One of the easiest ways to properly foreshadow is to write the story, identify the key clues, and then add the foreshadowing afterwards. Of course, it’s ideal to use the back-writing technique so you already know your key clues before you begin, but often stories shift as you write them and retro-foreshadowing can be a useful tool.

While it’s necessary to include readers in the detection process, you may sometimes want it to be genuinely impossible for a crime to be solved before your detective reveals the answer.

The illusion of allusion

An oft repeated trick of Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes is to identify where someone has been by the brick dust on their clothing. When this location is used later as part of the explanation of their guilt, it’s possible that, if handled lightly enough and supported by a slew of similar evidence, the reader will accept that the only thing standing in their way was a lax knowledge of masonry.

In this way, your foreshadowing can be very subtle and still achieve the desired effect. ‘Introducing’ the murderer within the novel’s first third might just require another character to mention they exist. Of course, how satisfactory your clues are depends on the reader and some will recognize and resent not being given a sporting chance.

Returning to the scene

Remember that at the end of the day, great murder mysteries come together in the end. Plotting backwards will keep you on track and make the solution more satisfying, but those vital clues need to be scattered with precision and that’s only possible when you have the rest of the story in front of you.

Creating a sound, consistent mystery instead of denying your reader vital information shows them a lot of respect, something which won’t go unnoticed. Most mystery readers feel a sense of competition with the detective but if the crime feels solvable, and the clues genuine, it’s a competition they won’t mind losing.

For advice on separating the essential exposition from the useless description, check out our article Are You Killing Your Book With Too Much Detail And Explanation? Or for more on writing a great murder mystery, try How (And When) To Kill A Character and How To Write A Better Murder Mystery Victim.


17 thoughts on “Understanding The Essentials Of Writing A Murder Mystery”

  1. Hey! Nice article. If you have time, can you just or someone else explain the clues section to me… that would be great! lol.

    x_Safa Rahman__

  2. I started writing a mystery a few days ago… or, at least, planning it. Problem is, I’m not quite sure where to start..

    1. start with a name; find a name you would like to have for your character, then think of what that name looks like, when you see a person with it. now you have a character to describe but dont just put that in to begin with. once you have a character, fill her/him in, places, age, family, activities. when you have that, where-ever the weakest points are, take them out. dont know how to write about that activity? put the mystery there, dont know how to write about family? kill the family off. put some major disturbance in your characters life, and start the story on that day so it starts suspenseful.

  3. chuck hungerford

    Thanks for this article (helpful as always) and your other great articles.

    I’m plotting out a mystery with multiple murders and other sins, some related to one or more of the murders others not, do I plot each murder and significant sin backwards individually or weave them back collectively to the start?

  4. Anubhav Bansal

    The best way to start a mystery is that…..start from a neutral prospective and then depict murder and murderer and then readers guess how did he/she did it and then all your clues and everything will fall in place if you know the ending….most important part is the ending if you don’t know it you are making it difficult for yourself just go along and first think about the ending…..plot the clues accordingly

  5. Actually ,I loved this article very very much.It is certainly going to help me a lot.Thanku so much.

  6. “To paraphrase a theatrical observation made by Anton Chekhov, if a gun is shown to the audience in the first act, it better be fired by someone in the third act.”

    I hate that! It takes away the surprise if you know that the gun will be used because it’s there. You should have the gun if you’ll use it, but you should also sometimes have a gun you don’t use, and instead the potted plant beside it becomes the murder weapon. Otherwise your plot is too obvious.

    1. Hi Ettina,

      I agree completely, and indeed many great moments have emerged from that type of subversion. I think it’s best to consider Chekhov’s advice in more metaphorical terms – the gun doesn’t need to be ‘fired’, but it does need to be ‘used’. That is, it has to have a purpose, even if that purpose is just to mislead the reader.

      Many authors include elements in their stories – characters, locations, items, events – simply because they enjoy them. They might even be enjoyable for the reader, but if they don’t also do something for the story, they’ll be to the overall detriment of the piece.


  7. I write epic fantasy political dramas or about domestic/social conditions usually, but I’m diving into murder mystery for the first time. This was soooo helpful! Thank you very much for taking the time to explain a basic approach.

  8. I think I’ll write a murder mystery. I write all love stories (not romance novels, yuk) and many of my writes shed blood, death, gloom, massacre, carnage, all of which are murder, but none of which is “mysterious”.

    Yes. like all my other writes, I write for me. If someone wants to read, fine, if not, fine.

    I have over 110 writes and growing since 2014 and no mystery murders. I’ll have to fix that, won’t I?

    Reminds me, I haven’t played the CLUE board game in decades! I wonder if CLUE original even still exists!?!

    Who done it, not me. I’m innocent.

  9. Thanks for the article, very useful to me. I was wondering can you guys relate these techniques to Agatha’s Christie’s And Them There Were None.

  10. robintvale (Jessica)

    So much great advice here, I also really appreciate the examples from the books you chose. I’m going to use this to help with my fantasy book as my writer friends were complaining that they weren’t getting enough information and that it felt like I was cheating. I’m working hard on fixing this so I think that learning a little about mystery writing will help when and where to put the back story, foreshadowing and clues. The more I think about it the more this fantasy story has many mystery elements. Like who are the adapts and what do they want (merrysn’s bosses so to speak) Why did they send her on the mission to fetch the book? Who is unnamed? I know all the answers and wasn’t sharing. Bad writer, bad! xD To be fair I’m using deep pov so this can be difficult I’m reading other articles and learned that the setting can be a great place to give a few clues along with the characters opinions, that also help share what happened to her and what’s going on. Dialogue, inner thoughts, and more. ^-^

  11. Thanks for explaining that good murder mysteries will have realization and not revelation. My husband and I want to throw a murder mystery party soon. Your advice will help me identify a good murder mystery plot to use for the party game!

  12. Was looking for some takes regarding this topic and I found your article quite informative. It has given me a fresh perspective on the topic tackled. Thanks!

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