Probably my favorite genre of movies and TV is the murder mystery. When you’re writing one, you have to be diligent and in control of every beat possible. The best ones are masterful experiences that take you on a journey and can make you a better writer.
They’re also a great way to showcase your voice and talent.
People love reading a great one, and if you want to break in and you have one you’re passionate about, it’s time to get it on paper.
Creating an engaging murder mystery that captures and holds the audience’s attention is a skill that involves a mix of creativity, strategic thinking, and a deep understanding of the thriller genre conventions and tropes.
From the atmospheric setting to the thrilling plot twists, there’s a certain formula that can help bring your murder mystery to life. So today, I’m going to help guide you through writing a murder mystery yourself. I worked on a guide that will help you create a captivating narrative that keeps your readers guessing until the very last page.
So let’s dive in…
Understanding the Murder Mystery Genre
‘Murder on the Orient Express’
20th Century Fox
The murder mystery is a sub-genre of the crime genre that primarily focuses on the murder of one or more characters. It involves elements of crime, violence, investigative teams, and, often, heartbreak rippling across the victim’s loved ones, creating a rich potential for drama… and sometimes comedy.
The basic story is that someone winds up dead, and the audience is charged with solving the case, usually with someone playing detective at the center.
A murder mystery is characterized by its plotline, which revolves around the homicide of a character and the subsequent piecing together of the culprit’s identity. The murder typically occurs at the beginning of the story, with the audience given clues of varying degrees before the grand reveal of the murderer at the end.
This genre has always been popular in the context of novels and has also gained significant traction in film and television. Despite its popularity, creating a unique murder mystery script that stands out from the crowd can be challenging, often requiring thinking outside the box and a keen understanding of the genre’s story beats.
Choosing Your Setting
You’ve heard me say that the setting is one of the most important characters in a story–and I’m not backing down from that, especially not in these stories. We want these to have creepy vibes or an exotic locale.
Let the setting pop and feel unique to every other movie you’ve seen.
The setting is an integral part of a murder mystery. It not only provides a backdrop for your story but also helps to set the tone and mood. Whether it’s a small, idyllic town with a dark secret, a bustling city filled with hidden dangers, or a historical period fraught with intrigue, your setting should draw readers into the story and make them feel part of the unfolding mystery.
It transports the readers somewhere no one else can.
Developing Your Characters
Developing Your Characters
Character development is important no matter what you’re writing. But in a mystery, the characters are all suspects. This means that they are the heart and soul of any murder mystery. They might be the reason that the heart and soul get stabbed out. Characters drive the plot, create conflict, and add depth to the story.
From the keen-eyed detective to the elusive killer, each character plays a crucial role in the narrative.
whether a seasoned professional or an amateur sleuth, your detective, or detective-esque character, is the reader’s guide through the puzzle of the crime. They should be well-developed, with their strengths, weaknesses, and unique quirks that make them relatable and compelling.
The victim, on the other hand, serves as the catalyst for the story. Their life, relationships, and secrets form the basis of the investigation and provide clues to the killer’s identity. Were they nice or mean? Did everyone have a motive? What secrets did they keep?
The suspects, with their individual motives and alibis, add intrigue and complexity to the story. Each suspect should have a believable reason to be involved in the crime, increasing the difficulty of determining the true culprit.
Make it feel like it could have been anyone. The messier the world the better here.
Finally, the killer, or the villain of your story, should be as complex and well-developed as your detective. Their motives, methods, and personalities should be intriguing enough to keep your readers guessing until the end.
Why did they do it and how?
Crafting a Compelling Plot
We’re going with a bit of a body theme in this article—a dead body.
The plot is the backbone of your murder mystery screenplay. It’s the sequence of events that leads your detective from the scene of the crime to the revelation of the killer’s identity.
A well-crafted plot is like an intricate puzzle—each piece, or event, fits together to form a complete picture. You can only see it clearly at the end and only understand what the intentions are once you have all the info at hand.
Start your plot with a trigger event (pun intended): the discovery of the murder.
We call these inciting incidents usually. This event sets the stage for the rest of the story and prompts your detective to start their investigation. From there, your plot should unfold like a trail of breadcrumbs, leading your detective (and your readers) through a series of clues, red herrings, and dead ends, until they eventually arrive at the truth.
This is a whodunnit. We should spend time pulling people apart, deciding who, in fact, did do it.
Remember to incorporate plot twists and turns to keep your readers on their toes. Unexpected revelations, shocking discoveries, and sudden shifts in the narrative can add a layer of suspense and keep your readers hooked until the end.
This is where the midpoint is really important. What;’s a new piece of information that could change the audience’s perspective on the crime?
Incorporating Intrigue and Suspense
Look, the reason people enjoy these stories is that they are incredibly suspenseful and exciting. You’re just turning the pages to see what happens next. Intrigue and suspense are the lifeblood of a murder mystery. They’re what make your readers stay up all night, turning the pages to find out what happens next.
It’s also what makes writing these screenplays so fun, you’re in charge of all the lefthand turns the story can take.
One way to create intrigue is to plant clues throughout your story. These clues should be subtle and not immediately obvious, but when pieced together, they should point toward the killer’s identity. Be careful not to make your clues too easy or too hard to figure out. The challenge should be just right to keep your readers engaged.
Planting clues can be obvious, or they can be items that a character thinks mean one thing but actually mean another.
Suspense, on the other hand, is created by raising the stakes for your characters and introducing elements of danger and uncertainty. For instance, you could put your detective in a perilous situation or introduce a ticking clock that adds a sense of urgency to the investigation.
Consider adding some twists and turns.
Plotting out Your Story Arc
Your screenplay roadmap
No Film School
We’re big fans of outlining the idea before you actually sit down to write it. Plotting out your story arc can help you organize your thoughts and provide a map for your story.
I created this story map to help myself when I’m outlining new script ideas (maybe some from the Public Domain), and I think it applies to lots of different genres and sizes of movies. Check it out:
- Unraveling The Map: Do you have an opening scene that defines the movie?
- The Launch Point: Where are we, and who are we with?
- The First Leg: What’s a normal day look like in this world?
- Change Course: What sets our characters off on their journey from normalcy?
- The Foot of the Mountain: Okay, we’re going on this journey together.
- Climbing The Side: It starts hard, but you get used to the problems as you go.
- Through The Cave: Do you have a B story? Set that story off on its own now too.
- Reassess the Problem: You’re in the middle. Is there another way to get it done?
- Try and Fail: Things begin to fall apart, can they handle it?
- The Fall: The worst thing happens, something so bad you don’t think you can get up.
- The Hidden Clue: What do your characters discover about themselves/the problem that they never saw before?
- Race to the Finish: They’re up and running no matter what.
- The Treasure Chest: Did they get what they came for?
- Where We Go From Here: Show us the world in a new light, hint what’s next.
Creating a Powerful Twist
I talked about it earlier, but let’s go in-depth here.
A powerful plot twist can elevate your murder mystery from good to unforgettable. A twist should be surprising, but also plausible and consistent with the clues and information presented in the story.
An effective way to create a twist is to play with your audience’s expectations. Lead them down one path, only to reveal that the truth is something completely different. This requires careful planning and subtle foreshadowing so that when the twist comes, it makes sense in hindsight.
Remember, a twist should not be a cheap trick or a deus ex machina. It should be a logical outcome of the story, even if it’s unexpected. It should also have a significant impact on the plot and characters, changing the course of the story in a dramatic way.
Understanding the Role of Pacing
20th Century Fox
Maybe the most underrated element of writing is pacing, and I see newer writers ignore it all the time. Pacing is a crucial element in a murder mystery. It determines the rhythm of your story, controlling when and how information and action unfold. Effective pacing can build tension, heighten suspense, and keep your readers engaged through every twist and turn of your plot.
A well-paced murder mystery alternates between moments of tension and moments of relief. High-stakes action scenes, climactic revelations, and suspenseful cliffhangers increase the pace, while quieter moments of reflection, character development, and backstory slow it down.
Pacing is not just about speed. It’s about timing and balance. Too much action can overwhelm your readers, while too little can bore them. Striking the right balance can create a riveting narrative that keeps your readers hooked from start to finish.
Exploring Different Types of Thrillers
There are so many different ways to tell these kinds of stories, from psychological thrillers to police procedurals to cozy mysteries. There are even lots of comedies! Understanding the different types of thrillers can help you choose the right approach for your story.
We did a whole breakdown of the kinds of genres you can play with.
Psychological Thriller vs Cozy Mystery
A psychological thriller focuses on the mental states of its characters, creating suspense and tension through their perceptions, beliefs, and emotional instability. A police procedural, on the other hand, emphasizes the detailed, methodical work of law enforcement in solving crimes.
A cozy mystery, meanwhile, is a subgenre that features an amateur detective, a small, close-knit community, and a crime that’s solved through deduction rather than police work. It’s often light-hearted and avoids graphic violence and explicit content, making it a popular choice for readers who prefer a softer approach to the crime genre.
You can take any of these and mash them together or create your own worlds. The sky is the limit as long as you write something compelling and interesting.
Bringing It All Together: Writing Your Murder Mystery
Now that you have all the pieces of your murder mystery, it’s time to bring them together into a cohesive narrative. Start by outlining your plot, including the key events, twists, and climaxes. This will serve as a roadmap for your story, helping you stay on track and maintain a consistent pace.
Next, flesh out your characters, giving each of them a distinct personality, motivations, and backstory. Make sure each character has a purpose in the story, whether they’re the detective, the victim, a suspect, or a supporting character.
Once you have your plot and characters, start writing your story. Begin with the murder, setting the stage for the mystery to unfold. Then, follow your detective as they investigate the crime, uncover clues, and grapple with challenges and setbacks.
Remember to keep the suspense and intrigue high throughout the story. Drop hints and clues along the way, but also include red herrings and false leads to keep your readers guessing.
Of course, finish with a dramatic climax and an unexpected twist that reveals the true identity of the killer.
Summing Up The Essential Guide to Crafting a Brilliant Murder Mystery
Writing a murder mystery is no easy task, but with careful planning, creative thinking, and a deep understanding of the genre, you can create a gripping story that keeps your readers on the edge of their seats, eagerly turning the pages to find out “whodunit.”
You have the tools, now get your idea out onto paper.
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