How to Plot a Mystery in Reverse

I’m working on writing better headlines, using info from Copyblogger.  Sorry if this gets weird…

Whodunnit?  That’s the major question of most mysteries (leaving aside thrillers and suspense for now).  And yet, most of the advice about writing a mystery that I’ve read is about hiding clues in your work–one of the least important parts of writing a mystery, in my opinion.  (They hide themselves, really.)

So how do you pick who did the murder, when you’re writing a mystery?

My advice here:

  • Pick the person who, when the solver finds out who did the crime, it increases the stakes.  Either the knowledge puts the solver in more danger, or bringing the criminal to justice is waaaay more painful than the solver expected–for example, the criminal is their only child.
  • The criminal is connected to many other characters by personal relationships.  That is, the criminal isn’t a stranger or outsider.  The criminal is, in fact, right in the middle of things in one way or another.  (Otherwise, the reader could feel cheated if they invest all that mental energy in solving a murder…and a random mugger did it.)
  • The criminal’s motive isn’t just for personal gain, but for some strongly emotional reason–personal gain AND revenge, or personal gain AND fear that they’ll never get what they “deserve” from their day job.  Personal gain AND pride.  It’s never just the inheritance, but the inheritance and that one time that dirty so-and-so insulted your salt-and-pepper shaker collection.
  • “Crazy” just isn’t good enough.  The motive has to be a reason that the audience can understand.  God help you if the whodunnit rests on something like, “The character was crazy because they were mentally ill, gay, or trans.” I will burn you.  Because that kind of thing is about the audience being unable to handle reality, not the “criminal.” Most people with mental illness as well as people who are gay and trans are far, far more likely to be victims than to be criminals. I promise you, you can find a better motive.  AND IT’S BEEN DONE.

People want to feel things in books; the best criminal in a whodunnit is the one who ends up giving the characters (and the audience) all the feels.

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