7 stages of writing a Murder Mystery (part 1)

I’m going to examine the 7 stages of writing a murder mystery as I actually create my new murder mystery (title TBC).

At this moment in time I am only at stage 1 so, to be fair, I have no idea if there ARE seven stages of writing a murder mystery. There may only be three, or there mat be twenty. I don’t know. But I will do all I can to fit everything neatly into 7 stages.

Hold that thought: I’m going to make that STAGE 1. 

Writing a Murder Mystery - Stage 1: COMPROMISE

At this very moment in time, I have only just started writing a murder mystery. Not that this is my first, I’ve written loads of murder mysteries, just not this kind. I haven’t even got a title for it yet. It may end up being called:

  • The Murder of Liberty Bell
  • When Liberty Bell rings
  • A Literary Murder

Something along those lines. But at this very early stage, you must accept the need to COMPROMISE.

By that, I mean that everything goes, for the moment. If YOU are, or are thinking about writing a murder mystery yourself, my advice is; Don’t try to figure out who the killer is. You don’t even need to figure out who has been killed, necessarily. The main thing is just to write…something. And be prepared to alter anything or everything as you go along. You may have written fifteen pages, some of which could be awfully funny, or clever or both. But you MUST be prepared to scrap it all and start again. In fact, you should expect that.

Because the story will come to you if you just write. So don’t try to edit your work at this stage. Just write. If you’re writing a murder mystery, you can invent your characters if you want (don’t try to limit how few or how many you’ll require), you may even have some plot ideas in mind. But let the writing take you where IT wants to go. Don’t try to steer it when it clearly is pulling you in the opposite direction.

Think of it like taking a dog for a walk (I know that writing a murder mystery and walking a dog are not exactly the same thing). You may want to go one way but the dog is pulling in the opposite direction. Yes, you can pull back and win it over but why not go where the dog leads YOU for a change. You never know, it may lead you to places you weren’t expecting to go. So have an idea of direction but be open to the direction your characters want to take you. Compromise. You may be rewarded.


What has compromise ever done for me?

Well, this is my FIRST Downloadable Murder Mystery Game. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve been involved in the murder mystery business (is it a business) for over 30 years but, until two years ago, it was always in the form of live events. We, as actors, would head off to a swanky four or five star hotel and perform one of the shows I’d written. The earliest show (aside from the disastrous first improvised shows) was The Beverley Biggins Bust-up. A friend of mine, and I can still remember the exact moment, suggested the murderer should be in FULL VIEW of the audience at the time of the murder!

It was. great idea (the entire audience becomes the alibi to the killer) but it took me quite some to figure out how to do it.

Now, as I try to create the sort of downloadable murder mystery that so many other companies offer, I wonder how to control the game.

After all, anyone (hopefully in their thousands) could download and play the game. They could be anywhere in the world. I have no idea who I am writing for! And that is rather scary, and definitely daunting. I don’t know if they will understand the humour. I don’t know where they will be (in the world, let alone the actual setting), I don’t know how many people will be included, what time of day they will play, how old they are, what mix of males and females there will be. There are simply too many combinations.

So I need to compromise.

I will give them names that could possibly be played by either men or women. Whilst I accept there will be a certain suspension of belief but I know that if, for example, I suggest a couple have been married for forty years, it will cause problems if the ‘actors’ playing those parts are both 25 years old.

So, as well as compromise, I have realised I need my characters to be as open ended as they possibly can be.


Writing a Murder Mystery - Stage 2: WORK BACKWARDS

Whilst I think it important to work backwards, you shouldn’t do this immediately. You need to start by working forwards. Only when you have gone a certain way should you skip to the end. The middle bit can sort itself out later.

This isn’t the way you should read a murder mystery book or watch a film, of course. You know not to ruin the outcome for yourself because you want to experience any twists and turns along the way. That, after all, is the fun of it.

But if you are CREATING the work, if you are actually writing a murder mystery, at some point you’ll need to know how it ends or else you’ll never figure out how to get there.

It took me ages to work this out. But it only wastes your time to keep progressing a story to some twisty yet logical conclusion, if you head in the one direction. If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll never get there.

So figure out your characters, the sort of people they are. Perhaps put them in a setting, somewhere where they all come together. Don’t get too bogged down on. how well they know each other yet (and don’t forget to compromise – if you need to change their address or their job or their relationship, you can). But get to the bit where the killer is revealed. Figure out who would have done it (as many suspects as possible) if they could but then start finding reasons why they couldn’t have done it (alibis, etc) or why they didn’t do it. It doesn’t matter if you still have three or four potential killers. Eventually, you’ll narrow it down.


As I say, at this moment, I don’t know who my killer is (and I can’t tell you in this post as I hope you’ll download and play the game yourself once it is finished and available.

But this morning, I made the leap from the opening to the close. I started to write the end game (again, I can’t tell you in what format this take. I really want to tell you but I can’t. When I have a link to the game – a way off yet – I’ll include it HERE). I knew that I was over-writing the ending. No-one who plays the game, having had a few glasses of wine no doubt, would want to read too much. So I will need to edit it down. But for now, I am writing the story as it comes to me. I am aware of a number of things; the killer is usually the person the audience LEAST suspects, everyone in the party should have a reason to be the killer, some things will prevent a character from being the killer (I have to admit, I’m a stickler for detail. I can’t simply have someone be the killer if they don’t have a strong enough motive).

I am also well aware that if you make it too easy, everyone will feel cheated.If you make it too difficult, everyone will get bored. And this brings me back to compromise. In my Sherlock Holmes Mystery, a show we ran to great success for well over twenty years, I made sure there was something for everyone. Sometimes you get an audience that are incredibly bright and intelligent. You have to make it difficult enough for them. But sometimes, you’ll get an audience that, shall we say, are not quite so clever. You need to allow them to feel they have achieved something. that they didn’t fail. 

And so perhaps my favourite thing about that show was that the answers were in stages. The brightest minds will easily figure out the first stage. But, by making that bit easy, the less smart audiences felt a sense of achievement. 

It backfired a bit sometimes. With the really clever audiences (and we had quite a few of those) they would often fin d the entire thing SO obvious, or so they would say, that they put their answer aside and moved on to something far more elaborate (and wrong).

So YOU have to know the story inside out. You have to know why and how the killer killed. If anything turns out to have been impossible or completely unbelievable, your audience will feel cheated.

I will come back to the 7 stages (I am sure now there are seven) once I have moved my Liberty Bell murder mystery on a bit.