Ten Rules For Writing a Traditional Murder Mystery
1) There must be a murder. (Suicides and accidents won’t do.)
2) A detective – amateur or pro – must solve it.
3) The detective can’t be the killer.
4) The murderer can’t be a total stranger.
5) There must be only one killer – with perhaps an assistant helping out with an alibi.
6) The reader should be able to guess the killer’s identity if they spot the clues.
7) The identity of the killer is revealed only at the end of the story.
8) The detective solves the case with little help from anyone else.
9) The murderer must have a strong motive.
10) The murderer conveniently confesses when faced with the evidence, making a conviction guaranteed.
A large number of very good stories have been written by obeying these ‘rules’, but the danger of sticking to the rules is you can produce formulaic fiction.
I loved reading Agatha Christie novels when I was at school, but I lost interest once I started solving them too quickly. After reading about thirty novels, I just knew the character with the unshakeable alibi was the killer. And I just knew the character with no motive had one hidden. It started to feel like I was reading the same book over and over.
Agatha Christie’s most memorable stories were the ones where she broke her own readers’ expectations by making the murderer the detective or the narrator or a character supposedly killed earlier in the story. Everyone remembers The Murder on the Orient Express for its unique resolution – while other more formulaic novels are forgotten.
A writing formula can be a useful tool if used as a framework for a solid plot – but if it is too strictly followed nothing new will be produced and readers will become bored.
I’ve never understood why a writer would want to write the same story again and again. If you want to do that, you might as well just change the names in a book and republish that. It’s the literary equivalent of remaking a successful movie.
Writing should be like a science experiment. Try something different each time to see what works best for you. A new formula might result in a breakthrough.
You might have some failures along the way – but at least you will not repeat yourself.
There should only be one unbreakable rule for writing.
Never write the same story twice.