For a murder mystery, should I start with a body drop?
I’m currently working on a murder mystery. One of the issues I am currently debating about is the opening, in which I’m unsure whether to start with the murder itself or whether I should start with the main detective in a more character-focused way.
The downside to starting with the murder is that this is essentially a prologue. If I instead start with the detective, the downside is that this doesn’t fully set up the expectation for the murder mystery.Adam
Hey Adam, Oren here, great to hear from you again!
To my mind, you’d be fine with either option. I know that might sound odd coming from me, a man on record as being against prologues in all their forms. However, the “body drop” opening, as you put it, is a fairly unique situation. Here, the crime being committed is essentially the start of the story, so showing it can have a dramatic purpose. As long as the opening isn’t very long, and the detective gets on the case quickly, it shouldn’t be a problem.
There are ways for this to go wrong of course. If we spend 50 pages with Dave the Security Guard before he gets murdered, that’s too long. And if it takes another 50 pages for the protagonist to hear about Dave’s murder, then the murder becomes a disconnected prologue. Starting with a murder isn’t an excuse for the protagonist’s introduction to be slow and boring.
Alternatively, starting with the detective isn’t difficult either. Simply having a detective in the story should be more than enough to set audience expectations for this being a mystery. You could start with some personal conflict the detective has, like how they’re struggling to make rent because the PI business just doesn’t pay like it used to. That’s a classic, and it’ll give your story some opening tension to hook readers. Or you could start at the crime scene, with the detective gathering clues. This won’t give you as much room to build character, so it’s best employed if your protag’s way of gathering clues is especially novel, like tracking spells or a werewolf’s nose.
Either way, what’s important is you get the story started as quickly as possible. If your plot calls for the detective to only learn about a murder later in the story, then you probably shouldn’t start by showing that murder. Instead, you’ll need to find another way of building tension while your hero works their way toward finding the body.
Hope that helps, and good luck with your story!
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Comments on Should My Mystery Start With the Murder?
There are several different structures for mysteries which work.
The ‘body drop’ is one of them – start with the discovery of the body, bring in the detective quickly, then launch into the investigation by introducing the suspects and their possible motives. I’m not sure whether you want to do a second murder around mid-point, but that is something which happens often (either a suspect or a witness is killed or someone , often the murderer, is almost killed).
Alternately, you can have the first victim killed towards the end of the introduction period, so people can see why they’re being killed and have already met the suspects together with the victim to see the relationships. This type often also has a second murder around the mid-point, often of a suspect who looks like the most likely one or a witness who might know more than they’ve said so far.
Finally, you can also have a mid-point murder mystery. In this one, the detective comes in to invesitgate another crime (often blackmail or theft) and the murder happens around the mid-point, destroying the detective’s theory and uppening the stakes.
I would advise against opening with the body drop. Depending on how you write it the reader will have either more or less info about the scenario than the detective. I don’t think it is a good idea to give more info to the reader (as you’ll have to repeat it later to the detective benefit) nor less, because i hate Sherlock Holmes for making me trying to solve a mystery without enough information. I think the reader should learn about the case at the same time as the detective.
A ‘body drop’ can also be the discovery of the murder, which means the actual act happens before the first chapter. That works better, because it’s easy to bring in the detective immediately and the reader will learn about everything together with the detective (as they should).
Sherlock Holmes was written before the ‘fairness’ rule came to mystery novels – that happened during the Golden Age of Murder (roughly between WWI and WWII). The Sherlock Holmes canon is older, at that time nobody expected that the readers would want to solve the case alongside the detective…
Never mind a good portion aren’t even mysteries. A Scandal in Bohemia and The case of Augustus Milverton are much closer to heists (bad heists) and some of the more popular stories.
Well, that’s the advantage (or disadvantage, depending on how you look at it) of being one of the first to write a genre.
Let’s also not forget that Holmes loses in A Scandal in Bohemia.
Moffat is not the first one to wrtite “mysteries”
Moffat has not written the Sherlock Holmes canon. Arthur Conan Doyle has. In fairness, though, Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin is older than Sherlock Holmes. Both are early precursors to the mystery genre which gained most of its speed during the Golden Age of Murder between the world wars when most of the rules were codified (see, for instance, ’20 Rules of the Detective Story’ by S.S. van Dine). It was then that basic rules like the ‘fairness’ one (the reader must have the same information as the detective) became a thing.
In the original ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ Sherlock Holmes gets hired to get a revealing picture back from Irene Adler, an opera singer and actress. Irene sees right though his disguises and disappears from England with the picture before he can take it from her. He admits his defeat and that, not some kind of romantic feeling, is why she is ‘the Woman’ to him – the woman who proved better at disguising herself and could outthink him.
What i mean is that if, for example, you write how someone discover the body, he instantly gets out of the suspects pool to the reader.
If the one that discover the body end up being the murderer, that’s liying to the reader, and it’s bad.
But if not, the detective can’t just discard him just because the reader knows he is not the killer (in fact the one that finds the body is usualy the prime suspect). He would need to investigate and find proof that the suspect is innocent, wasting pages on something the reader already know. And that would be boring
I read a lot of mysteries and I would never discard the person who found the body as a suspect. They might not be suspicious on account of not having motive, means, and opportunity, but until that is proven, they’re as suspicous as everyone else. It depends on how they’re written, too – if they’re clearly a throwaway character, like a random sheperd or worker coming home from the factory, it’s fair to assume they didn’t kill the victim. If they have any kind of relationship with the victim, though, they’re suspects.
The finding of the body can easily be written in distant third perspective, in which case we do not know whether the person is faking it or really shocked. Besides, you don’t have to write the scene of someone discovering the body, either. You can start with the relatives being shocked (or pretending to be), you can start with the police, you can start with a member of the family taking the case to a P.I. There are many ways to start with the ‘body drop’ – as long as the body is dropped right away.
The finding of, for instance, the victim in “Murder on the Orient Express” is not described because Poirot isn’t present and he’s the only viewpoint character in the book. The ‘finding’ of the victim in “Evil Under The Sun” is leading the readers astray and is supposed to. Depending on how the story is written, such things differ (both books, by the way, are by Agatha Christie, so the author is the same).
Building off Oren’s point, i think it depends on what is the most novel aspect of the story.
If the circumstances of the murder are novel, it makes sense to start there. Josephine Tey’s “The Man in the Queue” concerns a man being somehow stabbed in the middle of a busy box office line, but none of the witnesses directly saw it. The opening describes the line and the people in it (people we’ll meet later as witnesses).
If the characters are novel (or you’ve built attachment for them in prior stories), you might start with them, the way Sherlock Holmes stories tend to start with slice of life moments between him and Watson.
If the circumstances of the crime being witnessed are novel, consider showing the “body drop” through the eyes of the witness. Agatha Christie’s “The 4:50 from Paddington” opens with a woman witnessing a murder in a passing train.
If the character of the victim, character of the suspects, or setting are novel, it may make more sense to start by building the situation and creating slow-burn tension. Lucy Foley often plays with her audience’s expectations that it will be a murder mystery by creating high-tension situations where a murder COULD happen but pushing the actual murder to about the one third point. She also tends to start with the mundane but make things gradually more sinister.
It depends on what kind of story you are telling and sel awareness about what’s your hook.
If all else fails try writing both and see which one seems to work well with you and maybe some beta readers. This also works for endings.
I read a short sci-fi murder mystery where the murder didn’t happen until about halfway through the book. Everything before then was going over the different characters to the point where you knew what was going to happen and how. It was rather boring.
Yes, when you want a mid-point murder, you need to fill up the first half with something else. Often, it’s another crime which brings in the detective and let’s us see all the suspects already. If not, you need some other kind of drama. Already dropping all the hints before the actual murder isn’t good at all.
In mysteries where the murder comes late, the first part of the story often relies on the conflict of the preceding interpersonal drama to provide interest. For example, in ‘Death on the Nile’ (where the primary murder happens almost halfway through the book) it starts out being about a man who leaves his fiancée for her best friend, and how the jilted lover later stalks the two of them on their honeymoon. And because readers know it is a murder mystery, there’s some Hitchcockian suspense where we are already trying to anticipate when, how, and why the murder will occur.
This approach does have the drawback that it doesn’t provide the detective with anything to actually do until the murder happens. ‘Nile’ uses the Jessica Fletcher excuse of Poirot just happening to be on the scene while on vacation, but also a version of the gimmick where the detective initially refuses a case that then progresses to become murder. In some of Christie’s other mysteries, the detective only actually appears late in the book, and is not really the main character (more a sort of consultant or mentor).
I would argue that murder mysteries are flexible enough that many different structures are perfectly valid.
To be fair, quite some of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories have Poirot on the scene for other reasons – in “Murder on the Orient Express”, he’s travelling home on the same train, in “Evil under the Sun”, he’s on vacation at the hotel where the murder happens.
I agree that we expect a murder in a mystery novel and thus are looking at things differently than we might otherwise, looking at the characters deciding whether they’ll be ‘victim,’ ‘suspect,’ or ‘culprit’ later.
Mid-point mysteries give us the chance to build up anticipation for the murder whereas those which start with it (or have it in the first act) mean that we are thrown into things.
I would say both ‘Evil under the Sun’ and especially ‘Orient Express’ strain the suspension of disbelief in having Poirot just randomly come across a murder. And it’s not just once or twice, either, but numerous times in the course of the series (starting with the very first one, ‘Styles’).
Though to be fair, in a couple of her books (I forget which), Christie proposes that this sort of thing happening is not a coincidence, but a kind of character trait similar to being “accident-prone”: that some people through some innate magnetism attract events of a certain kind. While other people might travel the world and never encounter any kind of mystery, these people could stay at home in their apartment, and danger and intrigue would nevertheless find them.
It is straining suspension of disbelief, yes, especially considering it happens several times. It’s a lot easier to make it work if your detective gets called in for something else, if there’s something going on already and it might have something to do with the murder later on (blackmail, for instance, where the blackmailer gets killed).
I agree that most prologues are superfluous, but I think your point here supports the position that some are not. I think this shows that they are acceptable for other genres as long as they are as essential to a story as a murder is to a murder mystery. They must be or contain the inciting incident, but the fact that it takes place outside the timeline of the rest of story must be relevant to the story. And that is rare. The best example I can think of would be in the first book of the Wheel of Time. In the prologue, without spoiling anything, the main character comes to understand the consequences of actions he took just before it begins while another important character is interacting and arguing with him. Their interactions in that scene and the events just before are what the entire series is about, and are played out multiple times throughout the first book and the series. I don’t think it makes sense to have that be the first chapter since it takes place so far outside the timeline of the books. To place the scene elsewhere would go against the point the author is trying to make about the cyclical nature of time throughout the series.