Writing a murder mystery seems deceptively simple. After all, the ingredients are practically baked in. You’ve got three essential characters: the victim, the murderer, and the detective. And the plot is straightforward: the victim is murdered; the detective finds out who did it.
But don’t mistake this simple framing for a lack of complexity. Within this space, there are countless possibilities. Every element—from the setting to the motive to whether the victim is even really dead (twist!)—gives you, the writer, an opportunity to exercise your creativity.
While every writer has their own process, we do have a few helpful dos and don’ts if you’re writing a murder mystery of your own. As Detective Poirot might say, “are your little grey cells ready?”
Do your research
Regardless of the genre, reading a lot is the best way to learn how to write. But doing your research is especially important if you’re writing a murder mystery. Part of what makes mysteries interesting puzzles for readers is that they have a great deal of verisimilitude—in other words, they seem true to life. Here are some key details you may want to research for your story:
The manner of death:
Poison? Gunshot? Bizarre H. H. Holmes-esque murder house? Whatever manner of death you choose, you will want to research the details. For instance, how long does it take for a certain poison to take effect? What happens if you shoot someone with one kind of bullet versus another? And how did H. H. Holmes create that house of horrors? It may sound grisly, but you’re writing a murder mystery, after all.
The locale shouldn’t be just a static backdrop. It should actively play a role in the story. Local color, or precise elements of a place or culture, are key to making a mystery seem engaging and real. So try and research locations, weather, and even local traditions.
Law and order:
Even if you’re not writing a police procedural, it’s helpful to have a good sense of how people within the justice system do (or did) their jobs in the setting you’ve chosen. For instance, these days a detective likely wouldn’t walk through a crime scene without taking precautions to avoid disturbing possible evidence.
Don’t use stereotypes
If you’ve done your research, it will be easy to avoid stereotypes. But, even so, it’s good to remember to avoid clichés, whether they be offensive or simply overused. If your characters are either “good” or “bad,” you’re probably engaging in stereotypes. Furthermore, if you don’t understand the cultures you are writing about, well, it can be easy to veer into stereotype too. That’s why research is so important.
- the hard-boiled detective who pushes the boundaries and has a messed-up family life
- the foreigner with nefarious motives
- the innocent victim
- the chief or other figure of authority who complains that the detective is breaking the rules too much
While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with these tropes (legendary mystery writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle frequently used them), if your characters aren’t complex enough, they can come off as uninspired, dull, or even offensive. Here are some examples of these tropes that should be avoided:
- the detective: a blue-collar white man
- the foreigner: a duplicitous ethnic minority (as in Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys) or religious minority in a secret society (as in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet)
- the innocent victim: a beautiful, wealthy (and often white), young woman
- the chief: a brash, florid person who says things like “Just let it go” and “We don’t have enough evidence.”
Do plot backwards
A common piece of advice for aspiring murder mystery writers is to plot backwards. What this means is that you start your planning at the end of the story—when the detective or other authority has identified (and/or caught) the murderer. Then you work backwards from there.
What steps did the detective take to catch the murderer? What clues were left behind? And, crucially, how was the murder committed? In other words, what were the murderer’s:
- means: how did they do it?
- motive: why did they do it?
- opportunity: when did they do it?
Even if you don’t outline every single step of the investigation before you begin, it’s good to have a concrete idea of where your story is likely going to end up.
Don’t use too many red herrings
Red herring is mystery speak for “a piece of information that seems important but actually has nothing to do with the mystery.” Mystery writers employ red herrings to throw the reader (and the detective) off the scent of the real murderer.
In A Study in Scarlet, the word rache, German for “revenge,” is written on the wall near a crime scene to distract the police investigation. The word is meant to send the detectives on the hunt for a German speaker when really the culprit was (spoiler alert for a book written in 1887) an English-speaking American.
While one or two red herrings can certainly liven things up, if you spend too much time on any one the reader might get frustrated that the detective (and, therefore, they) have wasted so much time following a dead end.
Do make it possible for the reader to solve the crime (… sort of)
While reading the murder mystery, the reader should be able to solve the murder using the clues throughout. Or, at least, they should feel like they could have solved the murder themselves had they been just a little bit cleverer. This is why deftly weaving in clues into the setting, dialogue, or character description is essential.
For instance, in the Agatha Christie story Crooked House, the poison used to murder a victim is a typical everyday item that is casually mentioned early on in the tale. An astute reader who is paying close attention might note this, but it otherwise seems like an innocuous enough detail … until the end, when the murder’s means are revealed.
Don’t use boilerplate language
The key to writing a really good murder mystery is precise, interesting language. Hackneyed, overused descriptors like “her heart was racing,” “blood-curdling scream,” and “looked suspiciously at [x]” are boring. Instead of using the same well-worn descriptors to express excitement, fear, or suspicion, try some of these alternatives.
Excitement or fear
- shortened breath
- dilated pupils
- an eldritch scream
- heart thrummed
- looked narrowly at [x]
- said tightly
- chary or wary
Whether you use these alternatives or come up with ones of your own, your descriptive language throughout should be vivid. Really try to put yourself in the position of the characters. Think about how their bodies and emotions would respond to events in the story. Use language that accurately conveys these physical and psychological elements. As a brief example, here is a scene in which the detective is interviewing a probable suspect:
Detective Monroe pulled out the chair on the other side of the cold metal table bolted to the floor and sat down, never taking her eyes off of the small, pathetic-looking figure across from her. He was gazing at the floor, seemingly not noticing her presence. When she placed the folder on the table, his head suddenly snapped up, meeting her gaze. His eyes seemed manic as they skipped across her face, taking in her startled look, her dilated pupils. Her apprehension made him smile.
Yikes! In just a few lines, it is clear that Detective Monroe is dealing with a seriously troubled character she fears—and maybe with good reason. We get a good sense of the suspect’s physical and psychological characteristics, from his small, pathetic-looking appearance to his manic demeanor. We also get a sense of what Detective Monroe is feeling. She initially thought the suspect was not dangerous, but she quickly learns just how wrong she is. He was obviously trying to scare her (her apprehension made him smile). The paragraph doesn’t say, “Detective Monroe was scared.” Instead, it expresses that idea by describing her physical and emotional reactions to the events unfolding in front of her.