How do you formulate a traditional murder mystery plot? Do you start with the victim? The villain? Or do you select an evocative location or a controversial issue and start there?
I’ll clue you in to my methodology. This might work differently for you and is by no means a comprehensive list. But these are the elements I consider when planning a mystery. It’s part of what I call the Discovery phase of writing.
Do you title your story before or after you write the book? I prefer to have a title up front. Sometimes, this dictates what I have to do next. For example, in Murder by Manicure, I had a title and no plot.
This had been part of a three-book contract, and all of a sudden my publisher wanted a synopsis. I had to come up with an idea that incorporated the title. Someone had to die either while getting a manicure or as a result of one. I face this same quandary now. I have the title, and I have to suit the crime to this situation. That brings us to the next element.
The Crime Scene
Do you begin with the victim or the villain? In a psychological suspense story, you might begin with the villain and why he became that way. The focus would be on how he turned to the dark side and what motivates him now. Then in comes your hero who has to figure out a way to stop him while delving into his psyche at the same time.
My plots center around the victim. Who is this person? Where do they die? How do they die? Once I figure out the Howdunit, I’ll move on to the next factor.
What made this person a target? Here we might learn about their job and personal relationships. Was this person loved without a single blemish in his past? Or did other people have reason to resent him? What might have happened in his past to lead up to this moment? And what did he do to trigger the killer at this point in time? What could he be involved in that you as a writer might want to research?
This is the passionate belief that underlies your story. It’s what gets me excited about a book, because I can learn something new and feel strongly about an issue while weaving it into my tale. In Hanging by a Hair, I deal with condo associations and their strict rules. I also touch upon Preppers and the extremes they go to in their survivalist beliefs. Or perhaps my theme is really about family unity, and how Marla strives to bring peace to the neighborhood so she can resume a normal family life. In my current plot, I finally hit upon The Cause. Now the elements are starting to come together. It’s exciting when this happens. And that brings us to the next factor.
Who has the motive, means and opportunity to have committed the crime? Does every one of your suspects have a viable motive? If so, whodunit? And why now? How can you relate these people to each other? This is the fun part, where the relationships build and the plot begins to coalesce in your mind. Character profiles might help at this stage, so you have a better concept of each person before they step on stage. Seek out photos if necessary and do any research you might need before you get started writing. What does The Cause mean to these people? Is it the reason why the victim had to die? Or is it the glue the sleuth will use to put the pieces together?
Now focus on the sleuth. If this is your first story in a series, you’ll want to do an initial character profile. But like me, if you’re well into a series, you already know the hero or heroine. However, the protagonist needs to grow or change with each story, so what will be their personal lesson this time around? What is at stake that draws them into solving the crime? How does it affect them personally? And what other issues in their life are they dealing with now? What is their personal arc going forward?
Hook the Reader
Where will your story begin? How will it end? Will you include teasers for the next story? Even if you’re a pantser rather than a plotter, you’ll want to have an idea of a path to follow.
For me, by the time I’ve reached this last part, I have already jotted down plenty of notes. They might even be starting to make sense. I’ve done preliminary research and can see how the suspects relate to each other. Now it’s time to sit at the computer and write the synopsis. This should show personal conflicts as well as plot points, and how each story development affects your protagonist. You may follow an entirely different process, and that’s fine.
So start with various ideas for your plot. Write them down. Do a bit of research. Sound out your plot points to critique partners or friends. Identify the victim, the crime scene, and the manner of death. Develop your list of suspects. And then you’re off and running. For me, this is when the actual story starts. It’s begins with a crisis or murder that draws your sleuth in to solve the crime. Everything should flow logically from there.