Podcast

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Pros and Cons of Adding a Murder Mystery

One of the best ways to strengthen the spine of any book is to add a murder-mystery element. The first three Harry Potter books have an (attempted) murder mystery element. “The Brothers Karamazov” has a murder mystery. Nick Carraway even solves a murder mystery at the end of “The Great Gatsby”. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

So I read a lot of books that have a murder-mystery element, even if the book is primarily a coming-of-age drama, there might be a background murder (or other crime) mystery to spice things up. But you must beware: It requires a lot out of you:

  • We’ll expect the hero to care about identifying the killer. The mystery can be in the background, but it can’t be something the hero just doesn’t care about until someone else solves it.
  • We’ll expect a satisfactory conclusion. Once you hooked us with a murder mystery, we’ll be deeply unsatisfied if you just end on “I guess we’ll never know.”
  • If there’s a murder mystery, the reader is going to get wrapped up in it, and other dramatic questions like “will she forgive her father?” will seem less important.
  • Because it will become your primary dramatic question, you’ll have to wrap the book up fairly quickly after the killer is revealed. You can have more scenes to wrap up your drama, but they will feel like epilogue scenes. 40 pages at most, I’d say.
I read a lot of books that try to cheat, including a murder mystery element but not giving it its due.  If you want to do it, be aware that you’re taking on certain responsibilities to the reader. 

1 comment:

James Kennedy said...

Agreed! And failure to wrap up soon after the murder is solved might explain why Twin Peaks became so dumb after Laura's killer was revealed and that part of the plot was wrapped up (in the ninth episode of the second season). The season chugged on for about 12 more turgid episodes before we got the Lynch-directed masterpiece of the season finale. (As for the recent Twin Peaks: The Return, it was made clear from its beginning that the storywas no longer about one small-town murder, but the larger metaphysical craziness that Lynch was exploring at the end of season 2).