Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Keeping the Murderer Secret until the End

By Price McNaughton, @PriceMcNaughton

When I first began writing murder mysteries, my biggest fear was that I would reveal the murderer too soon. I hate books that make the perpetrator evident from the moment he/she steps onto the page. I didn’t want to be guilty of the same! 
Every time I slipped in a clue, I felt that I had just shone a spotlight on the guilty party. Some authors try to protect their antagonist by refusing to leave any clues that lead to him/her, but I was never comfortable with this strategy. There are better methods of protection.
I’m the first to admit that I have never formally studied writing murder mysteries, though I have read hundreds of them and written a few. Instead, I followed my own rules, which I have listed below.
  1. You must decidedly know who your murderer is and why they did it. This seems obvious, but I’ve read many books that do not explain the why factor. It seems as if the author has no idea who their antagonist is or what motivates them. I’ve actually read a couple of books that disintegrate to the point that the ending is… drumroll… why he/she did this remains a mystery. 

    The murderer admits to killing everyone, but gives no examples as to how he/she committed these crimes or why he/she did it. This leaves the reader feeling confused. One of the main reasons that a person reads a murder mystery is to find out what would motivate someone to commit the crime. The author can always explain what has occurred, but at the very least the detective must have a theory as to why someone would commit such a crime OR the killer must explain why.
Good example: It was obvious now that Mr. Smith had been jealous of his wife’s first husband. He feared that his wife still loved him and that the man would return and put an end to his happy marriage. Mr. Smith felt that he was left with only one choice. Murder. And so that was what he did.

Bad example: “Yes, I killed him.” Mr. Smith said.
“But why?” Mrs. Smith asked. She did not receive a reply. It remains a mystery to this day. The End.
Quick tip: Know your murderer inside and out. 

  1. You must leave clues. How many of you have read a book that gives absolutely no clues as to who committed the crime? Believe or not, I have a read a few and they are very frustrating. The clues do not have to be obvious or even fully explained. In fact, fully explaining the motivation of every character gets old very quickly. Leave some mystery in your mystery!
Good Example: Mrs. Smith’s face contorted briefly in an expression of deep sadness as her fingers trailed over the lovely lace edging the material of the gown. Mr. Smith pressed his lips together in dismay as he turned away.
“I hate seeing her so upset.” He said as he left the room.
Anger flickered briefly in Mrs. Smith’s eyes as she jerked her hand away from the soft fabric.

Now all you have to do is drop a line here or there in the book that could explain her feelings, such as “Mrs. Smith was left at the altar once several years ago, but you would never know it; she’s so happily married now.” This could explain why she acted as she did earlier in the book and ends up fully explaining the mystery. Mrs. Smith still loved her ex and Mr. Smith killed him because he feared he would lose Mrs. Smith. Mr. Smith didn’t know that Mrs. Smith was also angry with her ex for some reason, but the reader does. The anger might make some readers suspect Mrs. Smith of the murder.
Bad Example: Mrs. Smith’s face contorted briefly in an expression of deep sadness followed by anger as her fingers trailed over the lovely lace edging the fabric of the gown because she was left at the altar some years earlier.
Quick tip: Try to never use because when explaining a character.
  1. Reread your book and add in clues as you see fit. If you know your character and their motivation, it’s easy to pick out places to drop extra clues while rereading your book.

Example Sentence: Mrs. Smith said she spent the day reading. Her half-opened book lay on the table.
Added clue/red herring: Mrs. Smith quietly informed the officer that she had spent the day reading. The detective paused in his questioning as his gaze fell onto the open book on the table.
“Were you as surprised as I was when Sarah died?” the detective asked.
“What?” Mrs. Smith replied, distracted.
“In the book?”
“Oh, yes, quite.” Mrs. Smith smiled sadly. “I’m afraid my mind was elsewhere.”
“I understand.” The detective replied as he returned the book to the table. “I would be, too.”

With the extra information above, the observant reader now has some doubt in their mind as to whether Mrs. Smith was actually reading the book as she said.

Quick tip: Red herrings are much easier to add in after the book is written as long as you don’t write yourself into a corner with your characters, such as explaining everything they do and why.
  1. Let your characters LIVE. Life is a mystery. Let your characters retain some mystery. No one can ever be fully explained, should your characters be any different? The answer is no. I try to write my mysteries where anyone could have committed a crime, but most are unlikely to have done so. Many people have experiences or motivations in life that could lead them to crime, but do not because of the person’s psychological makeup/ upbringing/ etc. People are more complex than heroes and villains. Characters should be as well.

Example: Tears welling in his eyes, Mr. Smith reached for his wife’s hand as she stared into the casket. “I’m sorry you have to go through this,” he said as he held her hand tightly. The dark bags under his blue eyes revealed the fact that he had spent the night sitting up with his inconsolable wife.
“I know.” Mrs. Smith replied, squeezing his hand in response. She felt his arm slip around her shoulders as he supported her small frame.

He is sorry she has to go through the situation he created. He’s just more concerned with losing her than with her facing loss. He’s selfish.

Quick tip: You can’t ever go wrong with making your characters human and therefore both good and bad.
  1. Let your protagonist think. Create questions in the readers’ mind that you would consider if you were in the same situation.
Example:  Is Mrs. Smith happy in her marriage? Does a part of her still dwell on her past love? Would she be unhappy enough to kill over it? The detective wondered as he studied the couple before him.
Quick tip: It’s okay for a protagonist to be unsure.
The perfect murder mystery is very obvious when the reader reflects on the information they were given. What didn’t stand out before becomes central to the plot line. I love a book that redirects the thought process and when analyzed, the information shifts into focus much like a puzzle picture when the last piece is added. I think most readers agree with me. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but these are the methods I use when writing. I do believe, if you follow these rules it helps in keeping the murderer secret until the great reveal at the end.
What rules do you follow when writing your murder mystery? Do you already have a story in your head concerning Mr. and Mrs. Smith? Visit my blog to learn more about writing your own fan fiction regarding the Smiths’ and be eligible to win an ebook copy of both of my books.

Price McNaughton was born and raised in a small town in Tennessee. A childhood steeped in the stories and legends of her ancestors as well as the southern way of life led her to carry on the tradition and become a storyteller herself. After years of traveling and working at a variety of jobs, she has finally returned to her roots and devoted herself to writing. She is the author of A Vision of Murder and Murder is Ugly as well as The Ruby Necklace (a mini-mystery).

Murderis Ugly: When Jinx Delaney agrees to spend a horse-filled, relaxing summer with her old friend and sorority sister, Brynn Brookefield, in her exclusive community, she never suspects that murder will be the second house guest. Set in a beautiful neighborhood in the Deep South among carefully restored, historic homes and nosy neighbors, Jinx finds that looks can be deceiving and murder truly is ugly.

Book review blog: http://www.talebearers.com/