What We Expect in a Murder Mystery

May 2, 2018


Well, I never kept you guys in the loop as I wrote my manuscript, Story Grid Edition: Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  Sorry about that. Since I lasted posted, I have shipped off a manuscript to my editor and had a baby (with a couple of editing projects in there). I took two months off of work and I am getting back in the swing of things. I shut myself in my office two mornings a week while my wonderful sitter watches both my kids, and alerts me only when Julian needs to eat. 


(That little tidbit is in case you care to know how an editor finds time to work with a newborn.) 


As you'll see all over my site and in my posts, I'm a Story Grid certified editor. Shawn Coyne, who trained me personally last September, posits that genres have obligatory scenes and conventions. This just means the reader comes to a book labeled MURDER MYSTERY with expectations of certain elements existing on the page. I subscribe to this school of thought because as an editor,  I like to know what I'm looking for. Plus I think it's only fair to the writer to have some expectations when they ship their work to an editor. 


So the first thing I do is try to pin down the genre in the story. Not the genre the writer tells me it is; what genre actually emerges through the character arcs and plot line(s)?  


I assess this by

a) defining the protagonist;

b) asking of the protagonist what they really want, subconsciously and consciously, and

c) what forces of antagonism are chasing him/her down. Essentially, who/what is the villain?

d) What is the core event of the story?


See Shawn's infographic of Genre. 


In a MURDER MYSTERY, the core event is a crime; specifically, of course, a MURDER. The protagonist is a character (a sleuth, a PI, a cop, a victim, etc.) who fights for JUSTICE of the Crime. The villain is a MURDERER.  


In The Murderer of Roger Ackroyd, these are pretty clearly laid out. The core event is the discovery of Roger Ackroyd's dead body. Poirot, the investigator, is the protagonist. He seeks The Truth, regardless of whom it implicates. His opponent is an unknown murderer whom he must uncover. Thus, I think I have a Murder Mystery on my hands. 


Next as an editor, I ask of the manuscript, "Does it work?"


Meaning, does it meet a reader's checklist of the genre? Before I need to see how innovative a book is, I need to see if it contains the basic scenes that a reader picks up a Murder Mystery to read. If it has the bones of a Murder Mystery. If it is inherently a Murder Mystery. 




Once I know these scenes and conventions are on the page, then I worry about how creatively they are innovated and well the book is written.


Here's an example. I love Murder Mysteries. I love to read Agatha Christie and Sue Grafton. They are excellent Crime writers, in my opinion. But I don't read all of their books. If I pick up one of their books and see the Crime in question is a theft, I put it back (or I read it a little less enthusiastically). I want to read Murder Mysteries. So the OBLIGATORY SCENE to me as a Murder Mystery reader is the DISCOVERY OF A MURDER.


Additionally, I want a good villain. I don't want a dumb killer. I want someone calculating, or desperate. Someone who almost gets away with it. 


Remember, at all times you must consider what your reader needs. You can flip the script on them, but you've got to meet their basic expectations to get them in the door. That's a lot of mixed metaphors, but you get it.


In my manuscript, which is still with Shawn for review, I outlined a rough draft of what I think are the OBLIGATORY SCENES AND CONVENTIONS FOR A MURDER MYSTERY.


Curious if I, as an editor, adhered to readers' expectations in my own manuscript? My manuscript is a NONFICTION HOW-TO REVELATION book. Boiled down, Murder Mystery writers can expect to get tangible instructions to write a successful Murder Mystery.


A CONVENTION of the HOW-TO book is Ethos; the writer must be an expert. So let me dispel any concerns over my credentials: The Murder Mystery material I'll cover is not mine. I spent months with and about a dozen read-throughs of Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I also consulted some Sherlock Holmes novels and my favorite modern-day Crime series, the Kinsey Millhone series by Sue Grafton, to make sure the theories held up.


If you have any hangup over the mastery of Agatha Christie or Sir Conan Doyle, maybe this isn't your genre.


The instructions (another convention of HOW-TO) is from my experience as a Story Grid editor. 


So on to what I believe are the OBLIGATORY SCENES and CONVENTIONS of a MURDER MYSTERY. Consider your own favorite Murder Mystery or the one you're writing; see if these line up with what you consider the greats, or see if you can locate the holes in your own WIP. I borrowed a lot of these from Shawn, but I also found some more specific as I analyzed the genre. Some of these may seem terribly obvious to you. But they are still easy to forget to put on the page when you're writing! 



The Murder Mystery reader expects whole scenes (or sequences, a string of scenes) devoted to the following:

1. Discovery of the dead body

Any subgenre of Crime demands an inciting crime. The dead body, or the report of one, is the inciting crime of the Murder Mystery. 


This can also be done as a "someone is believed dead" scene.


2. Progressively complicated "Following the Clues" scenes

This may be the most difficult task for the Murder Mystery writer, and what Agatha Christie did expertly. These scenes are rife with red herrings (a convention of the Murder Mystery). The investigator/protagonist/reader gets closer to understanding the truth, then a new revelation (or another crime) muddies the waters again. This is the meat of the Middle Build of a Murder Mystery, while the investigator is hot on the trail of the villain.


3. A speech in praise of the villain

This is obligatory in all Crime. I think people cringe when they read this; "do we really need a Bond-villainesque speech?" But I think this is a crucial element, so I'm going to spend some time here.


When you have a protagonist like Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes, you need a worthy adversary. The reader needs to believe that this villain could be the one to finally beat the master, even though we know that they will win in the end. Or, put another way, we need to have a cold-blooded monster to satisfy that desire for black-and-white justice that Murder Mystery readers bring to the story experience. If the villain is not bad enough, not smart enough, not worthy of the protagonist engaging him in battle, then why employ Hercule Poirot?


Why did we pick up this book? 


So make sure you give some significant amount of airtime to the villain, by either the narrator, protagonist, victim, any fearful character, or the villain himself. This is a great scene to innovate. It can be subtle. Start with an over-the-top statement like in any Marvel (Action) movie: "They're going to destroy the world, and no one can stop them!" Then boil it down for your Murder Mystery and in the voice of your chosen character. Note that Poirot and Holmes always admire the ingenuity of their adversary. 


4. Bringing to Justice or Escaping Justice scene

A murder mystery can end in Justice, Injustice, or Irony. Sometimes the good guy kills the bad guy; sometimes the good guy lets the bad guy go because it serves a higher sense of Justice. Bottom line: there must be a resolution scene to pay off the crime. This one will take several drafts!! Avoiding cheesy lines, innovating, and not cheating on your reader (i.e. employing a deus ex machina device, in which the protagonist wins with an unfair advantage that the author writes in to dig herself out of a hole)--these are hard to do. 


5. Exposure of the Criminal Scene

The classic Whodunnits are puzzles to solve and we find out the murderer at the end when the investigator reveals him/her. Murder mysteries can also introduce us to the murderer early on, while we learn the details of the crime as the story unfolds. (To do this, consider your choice of mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony in each scene. Mystery is when the protagonist has more information than the reader, as Poirot always does. Suspense is when we open the door along with the protagonist to find out what lurks beyond. And Dramatic Irony is when the reader, in terror, shouts at the unsuspecting protagonist, "Don't open that door!!!") 


6. Discovering and Understanding the MacGuffin/Motive Scene

This is something I have adapted from Shawn. Alfred Hitchcock coined the term "MacGuffin" to label the tangible object of desire for the villain in Crime. The villain must be chasing down a tangible object, e.g. the gold, but in the end it's not even that important. It's just the item which incites the villain to action. 


At first I toyed with whether or not this still holds up in Crime, especially in Murder Mystery. Often what we look for in a Murder Mystery is a motive, an intangible purpose; revenge, passion, self-protection (ignoble), self-defense (noble), fear, etc. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I couldn't locate a MacGuffin after several reads. I finally found it--and had it been a snake, it would have bit me.


The blackmail letter. 


The letter incites the murderer to action; they destroy the letter and it never resurfaces. They kill Ackroyd for the fear of exposure (motive), but the letter is the MacGuffin.


The MacGuffin is what the villain will kill for.



The reader expects certain elements (tropes, characters, events) on the page in the Murder Mystery.

1. A dead body. 


2. An investigator character. 

There are subgenres under Murder Mystery, too. These are mostly driven by the identity of the investigative character. The one investigating (seeking Justice) can be a trained master detective (like Poirot, Holmes), an amateur (Christie's Miss Marple), a police officer (Law & Order), even a cat in a Cat Cozy. 


3. A murderer.


4. Other stock characters.

 Such as a sidekick, prime suspect, cast of suspects, a victim.


5. Red herrings.

These are elements of the crime, or the persons involved, that serve to confuse, complicate, and distract the protagonist and reader. These include (but are not limited to) clues, motives, alibis, characters, secrets, timeline of events.


6. Clues

These are the progressive complications of the crime. What you must provide to your reader:

  • Progressively complicate your clues. Just when a simple solution begins to reveal itself, plant another clue and throw the investigator and reader for a loop. Do like Agatha Christie did in Ackroyd and keep back crucial clues till late in the Ending Payoff. 

  • A blueprint to the solution. (How did the investigator get there?) 

  • A satisfying, logical solution to the puzzle. 

6a. "Smoking gun" clue.

I'm getting a little more specific than Shawn here. I think a good Murder Mystery needs a "smoking gun" that clicks the whole thing in place for the investigator. The investigator shares this in the Exposing the Criminal scene, e.g. Poirot's summation. The reader often can see this when we go back and reread. 


7. MacGuffin/Motive.

The MacGuffin is what the villain will kill for in a Murder Mystery; the Motive is the why. They're not always the same. See above.


8. A clock.

There is a sense of urgency set by a time limit, explicit or not, in a Murder Mystery. The sleuth has a window of time before the criminal strikes again; the villain only has so many hours to get away before the detective catches him.


That's my take on what inherently makes up a Murder Mystery. There are other factors which you may consider crucial to a great Murder Mystery. I'd love to hear them. What do you, as a reader, expect out of a good Murder Mystery? Contact me or email me at hello@sophiebthomas.com with comments, especially questions I can answer in future posts!


If you're interested in how I can help you write a Murder Mystery (or any story), or if you'd like a Story Grid Diagnostic on your Murder Mystery, I'm now booking for the summer. Schedule a free call with me here





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