Show Me The Body

This question came up on one of my writer loops: how long do you wait for the body to appear in a mystery? Assume we’re talking about a traditional whodunit. Does it make a difference to you as a reader when the murder occurs? How about when plotting your own books?

Based on my experience, if you’re a new author, it’s best to get the body up front and center. Once you’re established, you have a bit more leeway with the characters. But even if your setting is quaint and the story is more of a crime novel than a whodunit, action engages the reader.

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I’ve had several rejections over the years to mystery proposals wherein the criticism essentially said to move up the dead body. In my latest project, the initial first chapter had the heroine enter the scene, play mah jong with her friends, go to lunch, and then the person dies. I’ve changed it so that she meets her friends for lunch first, and in the midst of their meal, the murder occurs. Later, they gather to talk about it and automatically play out the motions of their mah jong game. As this is the first book in a proposed new series, I have to get the action moving as quickly as possible.
I should have seen this when writing the first draft, but often we need some distance from our work before we can see it clearly. Or we need someone else to point out what is blind to us in our closeness to the material. Also keep in mind that readers can download the beginning of your book nowadays and so you want it to be an attention grabber.

Yes, there are books I read where the characters and setting are so appealing that I just read on for pleasure, and it may be 100 pages or so before someone is killed. But I do find myself saying, “All right, where’s the dead body already? This is supposed to be a mystery.” So genre conventions come into play as well.
What’s your take on the subject: murder them now, or introduce your characters gradually and slide into the crime after the story is in motion?
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY to The Kill Zone Blog! I am proud to be part of this illustrious group!

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18 thoughts on “Show Me The Body

  1. Happy Anniversary to The Kill Zone. This is my favorite industry blog to visit because you’ve built a great community here and we always get equal parts helpful tips, fun and humor.

    RE: Dead bodies. I have not yet written a mystery, but when reading them I suppose I would look for it to occur within the first few chapters. I realize the trend for all fiction seems to be the blow-up on or near page 1, but I don’t necessarily think that’s always the best way to go.

    And, having had my Kindle for 7 months now, I don’t find myself feeling any more rushed to get to the action in e-books than I did in print.

    BK Jackson
    http://www.bkjackson.blogspot.com

  2. It depends. I’ve read books where it takes 100 pages to kill anyone, and others where the victim is dead when the book begins. It’s about how well the story is told, not when someone dies.

    That being said, I know that’s a minority opinion. Publishers don;t trust readers to go more than a page or two before some action “hooks” them. The value of anticipation seems to be lost on them.

  3. I’m a sucker for stories about serial killers, so I want the body on the first page. I want the first scene to be a crime scene being processed while the dead body slowly stiffens into a state of rigor mortis.

    Bringing forth the next body isn’t as important in the next few chapters (for me) as is the profile of the killer and his M.O.

  4. BK, thanks for being a loyal visitor to our blog. And thanks also for sharing your views re getting to the action in a mystery.

    Dana, you’re right in that often the pressure to speed things up comes from the publisher, but we also have to keep in mind that readers can sample first chapters now and so we have to do a good job of hooking their attention at the outset.

  5. Diane, I don’t read serial killer stories so thanks for adding your input. In any kind of police procedural also, I would think the crime scene details are important.

  6. I hadn’t thought much about this topic until now, but I believe I prefer my bodies early on. The characters are very important to me, but I must be somewhat blood-thirsty because I do want a body and I want lots of book to try to figure out who killed them. LOL

  7. Happy Anniversary Kill Zone!

    You guys are like a whole extra family to me…one into which I attached myself like a remora sucker fish by pretending to be the long lost cousin who everyone vaguely remembers meeting at someone’s wedding or birthday or having a great time playing with when they were six years old but there were mysteriously no pictures or recorded history of the bloke, but every one loves or at least tolerates him anyway even though he talks too much and is really too fat to dance the way he does. Yeah… I love you guys.

    In thrillers & mysteries and crime yes I think there should be body(s) early on to let the reader know they are on “serious ground”. But the deaths do not necessarily have to be in the first scene if a user can be grabbed. One of my favourite mood setting scenes (from a movie though) was the Braveheart opener. His dad and brother die, then in the next scene his wife dies, then throughout the whole movie lots of people die. Currently I am reading “Cloud of Sparrows” by Takashi Matsuoka and although the first death takes place several scenes in, the creation of the setting is rather spectacular. So I guess it depends on what the overall goal of the writer is. Epic story or flat out action, fast read or thought provoking essay, philosophical treatise or comic book violence. And so on.

    In my own work I try to get action going in the first chapter then go back to building the drama after that. So I’ve got starters that include a crashing space shuttle, a throat being slit, and a Marine being tortured. Each are designed to get the heart beating at the rhythm of the pace of the rest of the story.

  8. In The Inferno Collection, the first of the Kim Reynolds librarian sleuth mysteries, the first murder occurred about a third of the way into the novel. It’s been popular with readers and reviewers. In The Drowning Pool, the novel begins with the first murder. In my new mystery The Truth Sleuth, the first dead person is found at the end of the first chapter. I don’t think it matters much as long as the novel is interesting and draws the reader in immediately in some manner.

  9. Basil, in thrillers, I think it is important to either start with a bang like in your examples, or to hint at dire things to come. I used to read Clive Cussler’s early novels and they always started with a scene that engaged your sympathies for characters who were then killed off. At that point the story switches to the hero’s viewpoint but now you know the stakes.

  10. Jacqueline, you’re absolutely right in that the murder/crime doesn’t have to happen right away if the characters and setting are intriguing to the reader, but I still feel for debut whodunit authors, it’s best to put that body in chapter one.

  11. In a murder mystery, if the murder doesn’t happen soon, then the story or characters need to be very interesting, I think. If I can get lost in the characters or imagery or something interesting, I’ll keep reading.

  12. Personally, I want to get to know the characters/setting; otherwise, I don’t care about the body or the people affected by the crime.

    One of my favorite books, “Bimbos of the Death Star,” is set at a science fiction fan convention. The murder takes place halfway into the book, but the jokes, characters and the unique situation are so much fun I didn’t care.

    In my mystery the body comes in chapter six or seven but by then the world of the story is set and we’re hooked by the protagonist and his troubles. And my editor didn’t ask for me to move up the murder.

    I don’t think “body on page one” should be a hard and fast rule. Depends on the story.
    Sally Carpenter
    “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper”
    Oak Tree Press

  13. Oh gosh, Sally, I’m going to have to look up that Bimbos of the Death Star story. It sounds like something I’d enjoy, especially since Galaxy Quest is one of my favorite films.

  14. Sally said: “Bimbos of the Death Star,” is set at a science fiction fan convention.

    OK, this one I want to read on title alone. LOL! That and the con setting making it sound like an unbeatable combination.

    BK Jackson
    http://www.bkjackson.blogspot.com

  15. LOVE the name Kill Zone! IMHO, the body doesn’t even HAVE to make an appearance at all! There are a bazillion ways to refer to it without it being physically & visually there. Looking back, in my crime novels the body usually appears when the MC are introduced and it is their first case together. I think there are “rules” for cozies but I put the body in wherever it makes the most sense.

  16. I’m not a pro at mystery writing, but, just as you bring the hero and heroine into the mix as fast as possible in the first pages of a romance, wouldn’t one expect the body to appear fairly soon in a mystery??
    I’m just sayin’ . . .

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