When I started writing one of my current projects, a romantic drama series (basically a soap opera), I knew one of the first things I had to sort out was a complex murder that would kick off the story. While the murder mystery is not the core of the story (as in a crime fiction), it is an important element that puts a lot of the events in motion and turns everyone’s lives upside down. My biggest challenge was figuring out how to make the murder fit into the larger picture of the story.
I knew what I wanted this event to do to the characters’ lives, how I wanted it to affect each of them, how I wanted it to impede and upset their goals, how I wanted it to bring certain people together and tear others apart, but I wasn’t sure how the technical details of the murder should play out in order to support all of these other elements. I had a lot of parameters to fit this murder into. It proved to be a huge headache, but completely worth it. The puzzle was addicting. There were a lot of pieces to consider, and I’d come up solutions that would solve some aspects but then fall apart when it came to others. Making it all work without having to sacrifice important story elements I wanted to keep was the biggest challenge. (And since I haven’t finished writing the story yet, only outlining it, who knows what holes I may have waiting for me yet.)
One of the most helpful things I did was break down the point of view of each of the parties involved. Figuring out where their heads would be before, during, and after the crime took place was immensely helpful in figuring out what would and wouldn’t work, how things were likely to go down, and how to avoid holes springing up in my story later.
6 Points of View to Consider When Plotting a Fictional Murder
Depending on your story, you may have a mastermind that is behind the murder but someone else who does the dirty work (an assassin). The mastermind is the true “murderer” in the equation, whether they are pulling the trigger or hiring/forcing someone to do it for them.
In any case, the first thing you have to figure out is their motive for committing the murder. This may not be so cut and dry in every story, especially if you want to work a murder into the plot but don’t have the specifics of why or how it happens yet. If you don’t have a strong motive, the whole thing will fall apart once everything is revealed. There’s nothing more disappointing than watching a great murder mystery unfold only to realize that the motive behind it was weak. Then you’re just left with plot device with no real depth. Your readers will feel like they wasted their time.
Once you have your motive, it’s important to consider how they would personally handle this situation. Have they done this before? Are they a seasoned pro at writing people’s death warrants or is this their first rodeo? Is it a crime of passion or a calculated assassination? What kind of precautions would they take? What kind of mistakes are they likely to make and what would they know to avoid? How would they cover their tracks?
If your murderer wants to pawn the dirty work off onto someone else, then another major player in your story will be an assassin. Whether we ever hear a spoken word from them or not, this person will be a full-blown character in their own right in terms of motive, habits, and strategy.
The biggest question is, are they a professional or amateur? A professional assassin is much less likely to make mistakes such as leaving evidence behind. An amateur, on the other hand, could forget to take certain precautions, get nervous when it finally comes time to pull the trigger (so to speak), or feel guilty after the fact. All of these factors could have an impact on how things play out.
One of the most annoying things to see in a story is a character get killed in an implausible way. We’ve all seen it: a character that is smart, capable, maybe even avoids getting killed on a regular basis if it that’s kind of world, somehow gets taken down in a totally avoidable way. In other words, don’t treat your victim like a passive player or make them act out of character just so you can have a shocking moment.
Keep in mind their daily routine, the way they react to people, how protected their home may be, what their reflexes are like or if they have any fighting skills. Also, how would the world react to their death? Would it go mostly unnoticed or would it be a high profile case? The amount of coverage the murder would get it also something your murderer would likely take into consideration.
Obviously, the police are going to have their own job to do once they get wind of the crime. This can put many a monkey wrench in your plot if you want things to remain a mystery for a while. It’s good to familiarize yourself with their procedures so you’ll have an idea of the holes that could be poked into your mystery by an efficient police force. And ‘an inefficient police force’ is not a good excuse to let evidence fall through the cracks in most cases. That’s just lazy writing, unless you can make it plausible.
Are there any dirty cops on the force helping to cover it up? They’re a good aid to smoothing out certain discrepancies, such as getting rid of evidence or helping someone escape, but be careful not to overdo it. Even a dirty cop will be concerned about getting caught and know they can only do so much before it starts looking suspicious. If a certain detective is going to play a role in your story, you’ll also want to consider their methods and what conclusions they may draw from the case.
THE JUSTICE SYSTEM, MEDIA & PUBLIC
If the state decides to press charges against a suspect, you’ll have another set of characters to think about. How will this play into your mystery? What kind of conclusions will the public, jury, and judge draw and how will those conclusions effect how everything plays out? What kind of lengths will the lawyers on either side go to in order to prove guilt or innocence, respectively? Also, think about the emotional stress and turmoil this will place on anyone involved or connected to the crime.
THE SECONDARY CHARACTERS
Chances are, you’ve got a cast of characters that will have various roles to play in the murder, whether proactively or reactively. It’s important to consider all of their personal motivations, as well. If they’re involved in seeing the murder through, what are their motives for wanting to see this person off the planet? Why are they needed to see it through? Are they meant to aid it or do they foil it somehow?
You’ll also want to consider their habits, personal feelings, and experience, as this is no small thing they will be involved in. Think about their instincts. If playing out this murder requires one of your secondary characters to overlook something they wouldn’t normally overlook, then you’d better have a very good reason for it. Similarly, if you need them to draw certain conclusions to help aid the movement of the story, then make sure you’ve laid enough groundwork to lead them to those conclusions naturally. If they just conveniently have lightbulb moments that come out of no where, your readers are likely to call bullshit.
Hope this helps you out as much as it did me.
What are some of your tips for getting your Dexter Morgan on and plotting a fictional murder?
Let me know in the comments!