Writing for Publication: How to Write a Murder Mystery Story

When writing a murder mystery story for publication, there are four basic places to start:

  1. You can begin with the victim.
  2. You can begin with the perpetrator.
  3. You can begin with the crime itself.
  4. You can begin with the setting of the crime.

Most of the published mysteries I've read begin with the setting. Background is important: so is atmosphere. In order to write something publishable, the reader must CARE about the characters and what happens to them: in order to get to this level, one MUST supply some background for your imaginary people.

All the published mystery writers do this well. Agatha Christie does this so well, in her murder mystery stories. We know the place and the people intimately; we've been here before, and have seen these stock characters, like the village maiden aunt, the village doctor, the village lawyer, the village vicar or priest, going through their paces in every story. "Market Basing" becomes a second home. "Miss Marple", or "Hercule Pirot" are like old friends which we greet with enthusiasm once again.

A mistake murder mystery writers often make is to start out without sufficient background to make us care about either the victim, the crime or the perpetrator; from page one, we are suddenly plunged into a bloodbath in a hotel room, or see the victim expiring in a refuse-strewn alleyway, without any rhyme or reason.

An opposite mistake mystery writers often make is to give us way too much detail initially; to go on and on about the mists on the river, the sky at dawn, the dark tower glowering over the bluff...endless details of setting, page after page, and virtually unpeopled by anyone recognizable to your ordinary Joe.

Another thing to remember...your average murder mystery fiction afficiondo is a linear thinker. We like to begin at the beginning (which is introducing the people and the place, i.e., supplying the background for the story), go on to the end, and then stop. That's a satisfying story, to our linear minds.

So, you've made the beginning, which is about ten pages, or one chapter, and introduced the main people, and have put them down gently into their appropriate setting(s).

Now, for the development of your story.

You, the murder mystery writer, want to develop this story in one of several ways. It helps to have an outline, which is basically a timeline for the events in the story. Who is where, when. It helps to keep the alibis straight, for one thing. What happens? A list of the events in the story in chronological order also helps. ( You can play with the continuity later on, if you wish, but always keeping in mind that chances are, your readership is composed of LINEAR THINKERS!)

You also want to give some thought to motives, at this point. The whole trick of writing a successful mystery story is to keep the reader guessing, until the very end. One of the several ways to do this is to make sure MANY people have motives; some motives are more apparent than others.

The basic motives that drive a crime are:

  • Greed
  • Jealousy/Love
  • Righteous anger
  • Insanity
  • Self-defense

Motives are the fun part of writing a murder mystery. Human beings are multi-dimensional. We all have the potential to be bad, very bad! We repress this both for our own sakes and for the sake of all the other people in society. One of the reasons mystery stories are so compelling and so universally saleable is that the mystery fiction gives us a chance to be vicariously BAD, really bad.

If you hate your boss, it's lovely to come across a murder mystery story where the obnoxious boss gets a strong biff on his/her head, causing instant death, and , of course, the mystery of who killed him/her? Should it be a well-populated office, the list of ill-wishers is long indeed.

If you've ever been consumed with sexual jealousy, it's absolutely delightful when the sluttish vamp gets mysteriously poisoned chocolates through the post...Or when the ladies' man, who has broken many hearts and marriages, finally gets his comeuppance with a leaded pipe.

One of the very strong keys to writing a successful murder mystery is to make all the peripheral people, who might possibly be the perpetrator, interesting, multi-faceted, and with believable motives as well, without getting off the track of the main story too far.

The ending of the story should always be a surprise. The legerdemain of misdirection is the mystery writer's meat and drink.

We, the readers, should not be able to guess whodunit, even though the mystery writer has played fair with us and scattered enough clues about.

What the competent mystery writer does is give us clues, but minimizes the importance of the most telling clues, and obscures those clues amongst a cloud of false leads, or red herrings. It's easy for the mystery writer to to this. He/she is God and can do anything, make anything happen or not happen, on the page.

The mystery writer needs to know precisely where the story is going, before he/she has begun to write, but needs to protect that information all throughout the development of the story. The reader should NOT be able to guess the ending.

Generally speaking, the real protagonist of the mystery story is the detective who solves the crime.

Now, for one thing, we want a repeatable protagonist, where this same detective is met again and again in succeeding stories. So the most sympathetic character one creates is the detective, and the detective is given more detail, outlined more thoroughly, and often given a sidekick of some sort. Most often, the story is written from the detective's point of view, which automatically lets us into the detective's mind.

This person may be an amateur, (which, as a reader, I personally find the most sympathetic and easiest to digest) or, the detective can be a policeman, whose job it is to solve crimes.

If you make your detective a policeman, it is very wise to be prepared by knowing basic police procedures and basic criminal law. A couple of books on those subjects is almost mandatory for the creator of a police detective in fiction.

The good thing about making your detective a policeman is that the policeman naturally has many, many opportunities to be connected with crimes of all kinds. This helps the repeatability of the protagonist.

An amateur, on the other hand...well, let's say it starts stretching one's credibility when Miss Marple is off investigating her sixth or seventh murder...In ordinary life, a person is rarely confronted with murder even once. (Fortunately for us all!)

There you have it, the basics for writing a murder mystery story for publication.

Good luck, and here's to crime!

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Comments 22 comments

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 2 years ago from Upstate New York Author

It's very hard for a new writer to get published by book publishers these days. As electronic media goes up, print media goes down. Sad but true. I love mystery stories and often have to fall back on the old stand-bys because there's nobody new in print that I like/

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 2 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

This does sum it up pretty well. For a long time I wanted to be a mystery writer and have a number of books on the subject. Somehow it didn't gel. On hubpages I started writing historical and western stories, mor of less on a challenge.

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thanks for the comment, Duchess. Maybe you could try it again. Maybe there's a terrific ending just waiting around the corner!

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Duchess OBlunt 5 years ago

Really enjoyed this Hub Paradise7. Probably because I have always wanted to write a mystery novel. I even started one once. Got about 10 chapters into it and realized I didn't know the ending! LOL Good advise - I'll try to remember it for my next attempt.

Rated up and sharing!

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thanks for the comment, G. I love mysteries but could wish for more character development, most of the time. Otherwise, it's a crossword puzzle type mystery, which is good in its way, it keeps me guessing, but...as far as a re-read, no way!

GClark profile image

GClark 5 years ago from United States

Excellent hub with terrific advice for the aspiring mystery writer; especially, the two major mistakes that you identify. I know I have to care about the main character and most times will read a couple of pages to get a feel for the writing style and plot to see if it grabs me or not. My pet peeve is a story and time line that jumps all over the place. I look forward to reading a mystery written by you. Voted Up. GClark

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thanks for the comment, and I'm looking forward to reading your mystery. I love mystery stories.

writinginalaska profile image

writinginalaska 5 years ago from southeast Alaska

a very good hub Paradise7. I am currently in the middle of writing one. Thanks for the tips and reminders. lvh

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thank you for the comment, Sweetie Pie. Yes, I have a story in mind. It's a lot of work, though. It's gonna take an awful lot of fine tuning to really make the story go.

SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 5 years ago from Southern California, USA

I hope you are publishing a book too, Paradise. I would enjoy reading your murder mystery.

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Hey, Sweetie, can't wait to see your book! Some people from HP have had good success with Amazon self-publishing. Amazon promotes Kindle like mad; I think that's why. The wave of the future, you know.

SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 5 years ago from Southern California, USA

I could never write a murder mystery. Finally finished my first novel, and I am still editing on it bit by bit. I will be self-publishing it, most likely on Amazon.

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thanks, Kitty!

kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 5 years ago from the Ether

Wow! How detailed and informative. Great tips on how to write a mystery story that will really be exciting and head-scratching. :) Voted up and useful.

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thanks, Carl. It was a fun one. Go ahead, write that mystery! Maybe you'll sell the story to the movies and make a million dollars!

CarltheCritic1291 profile image

CarltheCritic1291 5 years ago

Great Hub Paradise7, very informative and useful. The same can be said about murder mystery films, and writing scripts. Great Hub, I now feel like I want to write a murder mystery now. Voted Up and Everything Else.

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thanks for the comments, Scarytaff, Gypsy Rose and JT.

JT: I'll check your stories out. Thanks for the heads up. (Strictly speaking!)

Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

I still think it takes a great deal of talent to write a mystery but this is one great and informative hub. However think what may have become of Agatha Christie if her stories hadn't caught on. Love Hercule Poirot but couldn't even imagine myself how to make him come to life. Christie did that and I still watch her mysteries on YouTube.

scarytaff profile image

scarytaff 5 years ago from South Wales

Hi, No.7. Very well thought out. I love reading murder mysteries but couldn't even think about starting one. Maybe with some of these pointers....... Thanks.

JT Walters profile image

JT Walters 5 years ago from Florida

Thanks Paradise7,

In my short stories The Wishing Well, I lay it out much like a mystery but it is not strickly a mystery. To fit the format of the contest last month I had to lay it out like a novellea which it took quite a hit but is still worth the read and I have another one on called Young Americans in Paris if you wish to give it a gander.

But your hub is applicable to laying out of plots for most writing schemes. Most people don't realize how much planning goes into writing.

Thanks for the great hub.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thanks, JT. Praise from Ceasar is praise indeed. I know a lot of people who, like me, love reading murder mysteries, ever since childhood and Sherlock Holmes, but are intimidated by the genre when trying to write our own stories. I think it's because we don't know where or how to begin. I hope this helped, because I love mystery stories. The more the merrier. If you want to write a mystery, I'll read it!

JT Walters profile image

JT Walters 5 years ago from Florida

As a former member of MWA I applaud you. Very god introduction into mystery writing.


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