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The Foolproof Formula for Writing A Murder Mystery


Let’s start with the title of your murder mystery. A title, even if it is only a few words, has the ability to contain both a male and female character, as well as indicate their relationship to each other. For example: The Meteorologist’s Daughter or The Executioner’s Wife. So much has been established in only three words!

The key to titling is making your female character a possession. Make her a man’s possession, specifically. Do not give her a name or a profession. Do give him a profession! The weirder his profession, the better. Do not worry about how impractical or obscure his job title is. A man can succeed at anything. Letter pressing. Whaling. Snake taming. Basket weaving. Rabbit breeding, etc. 

illustration of author writing murder mystery

“With a woman, on the other hand, you must describe every escalating thought…” Illustration by Josh Quick

This will center the story on a man. It also makes the woman a sister or a wife or a daughter, and thus, more valuable. 

An alternative titling approach is to remove the man and instead focus on implying your woman is dead or missing (which is, of course, a precursor to death). 

For example, The Girl who Went Far Away or The Girls Underground.

You do not need to insert a man into these titles, because it is already implied. Who is looking for her? Who is missing her? A man, of course.

If you can get away with it, do not name the woman in your murder mystery. Instead, keep the focus on the men in her life. Give them names and titles. Sargent O’Donnell. Officer Brady. Detective Schumer. Coroner Bligh. 

Ideally, you should only call your woman “the girl.” This keeps her young, glossy, and perky. When describing this woman, keep her characteristics young, beautiful, and social. These are all valuable traits that will make her loss that much more devastating. You would be more distraught over losing a one-hundred-dollar bill than you would be over losing a one-dollar bill, wouldn’t you? Women are the same way.

Other useful descriptors include bride, betrothed, and engaged. These words remind us that someone is suffering at the loss of their (young and virginal) property. 

If you must name your female lead, reveal her name in the second or third act via dialogue. It is always a powerful moment when a priest reveals a name during a funeral service. Another option is to have a detective tearing up on the witness stand, sputtering her name only to send away her killer. 

It goes without saying that the plot of your murder mystery revolves around a dead or missing woman. When plotting, remember this motto: Make her a victim. This motto applies not only to our woman, but to all the women in her life. Her friends. Her coworkers. Her mothers. They should all be living in fear following our leading woman’s abduction or murder. 

These supporting female characters should be used sparingly, and only to express fear, and thus, heighten danger and conflict within the story. There is a rare case when giving a female main character a profession can move your plot forward. Make your woman a barista or waitress, so that there is a restaurant full of girls that the detective or distraught father or wandering fiancé can go to for questioning. 

It is important that none of these side characters become main characters. Remember, plot demands action, which is best suited for men.

If one of your supporting girls becomes a prominent character, a quick fix is to make her an antagonist, or more specifically, an accomplice to the real, male antagonist. This will be unexpected. A member of the fairer sex doing something evil! How original. 

But remember our murder mystery motto. Make her a victim! Even as the antagonist’s accomplice, make sure to develop this character’s hurt. A practical way to go about this is to place your accomplice in an abusive relationship. This way the reader won’t ask, “How could she do this?” The reader will already know that a man made her do it. 

More adventurous writers may choose to cut out the male antagonist altogether, and instead make one of the baristas a murderess. This is very hard to pull off, but when done properly, offers a huge twist ending. If our murderess isn’t currently in an abusive relationship, she must have been abused in the past so there is still a way to make our motto apply: Reveal her abuse in flashbacks. If writing a woman’s inner monologue seems too daunting, simply tell the reader about the abuse through dialogue. Have a man in her past hurt her so deeply that even if the abuse occurred decades ago it still influences her every action.

Let’s address “breaking points” or characters who “suddenly snap.” It may seem convenient to have our murderess murder because she suddenly snapped, but that will leave your story skimping on characterization. It is reasonable for a male character to snap. Male characters contain multitudes. We do not need to see these multitudes because we know they are there. 

With a woman, on the other hand, you must describe every escalating thought your murderess had. Or how will we know she thinks at all? A versatile and believable way to develop a woman’s fragile mental state is to center her motivations on a failed relationship or the death of a child, as every woman’s life naturally revolves around men and children. 

And that’s all you need to know. Follow my advice and you too will one day see your murder mystery on shelves. Imagine it: another book cover featuring a faceless, long-haired beauty, looking longingly away from us. 

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Nicole Hebdon (Guest Blogger)

Nicole Hebdon work has been published in The Kenyon ReviewThe New Haven ReviewThe New Ohio ReviewThe Antigonish ReviewThe Southampton Review, and F(r)iction among other places. She is currently working on a collection of short stories about closed communities.