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Piecing together a murder mystery

Stuck for a way to start on your Whodunit challenge, as I am? Let's work the problem together

By Raymond G. TaylorPublished 4 months ago Updated 4 months ago 8 min read
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Image created by author using MS Bing AI

If like me you are not sure where to start with Vocal's latest challenge, don't panic. There is a way to break down the problem and come up with a solution that will allow you to concentrate on your creativity, create your characters, and map out your mystery.

For starters, crime fiction, murder mystery, detective yarn, whatever you want to call, it is perhaps the most structured and established of forms in modern fiction. It is also the most clichéd so beware of falling into the trap of making your story too obvious.

Of course you do not have to follow the established pattern, the structure, include all of the key elements, and many will want to take their own individual approach, which is great. If you don't make some reference to the standard backbone of a detective fiction, however, it won't be a detective fiction. By calling the challenge "Whodunnit" Vocal curators are indicating that they want stories cast in the recognisable crime fiction mold. Or do they?

Be sure to read "about this challenge" hints and tips carefully. When the Vocal team judges assess entries they always make reference to these given criteria. If you don't answer the essential questions posed by any challenge, you will have little chance of winning a prize. At the same time, they are not looking for a plodding plot, standardized structure, or character clichés with an obvious ending. While understanding structure, plot, characterization and these important elements, you also need to inject your own brilliance into your tale. Understand the essential elements of crime fiction and then stir up the cauldron with your own originality and sparkle.

What are these essential elements of the perfect murder?

So what are these essential elements of the perfect murder, the unsolvable crime yet solved? Don't ask me. I ain't no English professor and I never went to no creative writing classes neither. I have picked up some ideas from my limited reading but, like I said, I don't have all the answers. I guess I could go read some books about writing or visit all the obvious writers' websites but who's got time to do all that? No! I am going to ask my writing buddy for help. My AI writing buddy. You don't like the idea of using AI in your work? Why not. You use Google and Wikipedia to find stuff out don't you? Same thing just easier and quicker. Just to be clear, I use AI products for quick and dirty research (just like Google and Wiki) and not for writing. Not least because AI writing is rubbish.

Here's what Bing Chat said when I asked about the key elements of an engaging murder mystery story:

The following text was generated by Bing Chat

Murder: A murder mystery must have a murder. It sounds pretty obvious, but it’s important to remember that crime novels, detective novels, and noir are often used interchangeably with murder mysteries. A mystery can mean anything from a murder to something involving stolen/lost items to a kidnapping or disappearance. However, a murder is the most common type of mystery.

Suspects: The next key element for a murder mystery is a suspect. There needs to be a few suspects. Someone has to die and someone has to be the cause of the death, whether directly — i.e. through physical violence — or indirectly through poison, traps, etc. But for a good mystery, there needs to be enough suspects that can keep the story going and keep the reader from guessing too early on just because there are too few people.

Detective: Someone needs to be the detective. The detective will lead the reader through the case as they collect clues, talk to people and sum them up. The detective will work as the proxy for the reader.

Clues: A murder mystery must also include clues and evidence, red herrings and other twists, and a final revelation or twist that reveals the true culprit.

Atmosphere: The story should create an ominous, uneasy mood through setting to support the mystery.

Characters: Well-developed characters are crucial for a successful and enjoyable murder mystery book. The characters should be likable and relatable, and the suspects should be complex and multi-dimensional. The victim should also be more than just a corpse, they should have an interesting backstory that makes the crime more impactful.

End of AI-generated text

References provided for the above:

  1. bookriot.com
  2. horrortree.com
  3. whenyouwrite.com
  4. masterclass.com

This all might seem pretty obvious but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated in order to avoid leaving gaps. There are also some useful pointers in the above. The detective being the proxy for the reader for instance. This is the thing that really allows readers to get involved with the story. As the detective spots clues and solves riddles, they are doing so on behalf of the reader and the reader is doing the same thing alongside them. Reader and detective become a kind of dynamic duo like Holmes and Watson, playing off each other, learning from each other, each pushing the other one forward. And the wonderful thing about the detective is that they do not have to be a detective. They could just be someone who happens to stumble into the story, someone just like you 0r someone you can look up to, admire, or hate but be forced to accept, however grudgingly. There must be a deep empathy with the detective character and that empathy carries the reader through the story.

Same goes for the villain, or the perceived villain. Don't make the perpetrator too obvious and don't make them out of wood. Just as the detective must have weaknesses (Holmes the drug addict, the irritating know-it-all) so the villain must have some saving graces (he murdered the victim to protect someone else, deep down he is a good person gone astray...)

Hieronymus Bosch: Conjurer. Public domain

ents such as clues need to be treated with care. You have to strike a balance between providing clues that will lead to an eventual solution without making them too obvious. You need to use a magician's sleight of hand to misdirect the reader to red herring clues, send them off on a wild goose-chase (without them knowing) before the trail starts to slowly become a little clearer. While misdirecting the reader you also have to be careful not to lose them altogether. Feed them morsels, crumbs from the table, don't let them starve to death.

Going back to the question of structure, this is what my AI pal said when I asked:

The following text was generated by Bing Chat

The structure of a murder mystery story is pretty consistent, but there is room for a lot of variety in this genre. Here are some tips to help you structure your murder mystery story:

Discovery of a murder victim: The story should begin with the discovery of a murder victim. This is the inciting incident that sets the story in motion.

Investigation by a sleuth: The next step is an investigation by a sleuth, who can be either a professional or an amateur. The sleuth will collect clues, interview suspects, and try to solve the case.

Red herring: A red herring is a false clue that is intended to mislead the reader. It’s a good idea to include a few red herrings to keep the reader guessing.

Compromising situation: The sleuth should walk into a compromising situation and discover the truth. This is the climax of the story.

Narrow escape: The sleuth should make a narrow escape, and the murderer should be caught. This is the resolution of the story.

Characters: Well-developed characters are crucial for a successful and enjoyable murder mystery book. The characters should be likable and relatable, and the suspects should be complex and multi-dimensional. The victim should also be more than just a corpse, they should have an interesting backstory that makes the crime more impactful

End of AI-generated text

References provided for the above:

  1. bookriot.com
  2. horrortree.com
  3. whenyouwrite.com
  4. masterclass.com

I am not sure that this explanation is sufficient but it is a starting point. In particular, I don't think there is enough about ending a murder mystery, assuming you are making your crime a murder. Personally, I think the structure works the same regardless of whether we are talking of murder or petty theft.

Puzzle effect from puzzel.org

When it comes to endings, the obvious one to consider is the drawing room denouement, as championed by Agatha Christie. Much criticized by the likes of Raymond Chandler, among others, it didn't stop Chandler from invariably using them. Like when Mr Mariano shows up at the end of The Long Goodbye. The denouement just means that someone, usually the detective, explains to other characters (and therefore to the reader) what has happened. To me, this is a glorious cop-out and hides the fact that the author couldn't think of a proper ending. Or the story and ending were too confusing for the reader to understand.

My idea of a brilliant ending (SPOILER ALERT!!!) is the shock discovery of the identity of the real murderer after someone else has been identified as the villain or when the detective fails to find the perp. Like when Harrison Ford discovers the bloody hatchet and realizes for the first time that his wife is the killer of his lover. So many possibilities to play around with.

As I said at the beginning, I am still trying to think of a detective character, a crime, and how it might progress to the end. Given a murder starts with an end (the end of the life of the victim) I think I will also start with trying to work out how a story might end before working back, using the established structure and key elements of murder mystery as the backbone of my story.

I hope that, if you have read this article, it will also help you to make a start on your story.

Good luck with the challenge and I am looking forward to reading your brilliant entries.

Ray Taylor

Kent, England, Dec 13, 2023

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About the Creator

Raymond G. Taylor

Author based in Kent, England. A writer of fictional short stories in a wide range of genres, he has been a non-fiction writer since the 1980s. Non-fiction subjects include art, history, technology, business, law, and the human condition.

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Comments (8)

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knockabout a month ago

    Most helpful. Thank you for sharing this with us, Ray.

  • Shirley Belk4 months ago

    After reading your well researched how tos and whys on this topic, I feel compelled to attempt it at some point in my life...write about it, not commit it...

  • Rene Peters4 months ago

    I'll have to try to get something even though I have never done any kind of mystery. Thank you for this!

  • You know what, I never thought to use AI as a substitute for Google. That's a brilliant idea. I learned what a red herring is. Thank you for that. Also, how did you insert a gif? I've tried doing that but couldn't.

  • Scott Christenson4 months ago

    Nice summary, and creative use of AI text. You reminded me of how many Agatha Christie novels I had read and looked forward to the massive exposition at the end where someone describes how the murder was committed. As you said, that's been sort of out of fashion, but still pops up, especially in TV & Film. I think the Glass Onion films do that. I'd like to write a murder mystery now, but hard to fit 5+ characters into a short story!

  • Mother Combs4 months ago

    Thanks for the tips

  • Natasha Collazo4 months ago

    Boy, do I have so homework to do. 📝 thank you!

  • J. S. Wade4 months ago

    Thank you

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