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.
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?
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