what is needed to write a good whodunit?

by Steven Winn Tindall
(Lakeside, CA)

Question: What is needed to write a good whodunit? How do I develop a good mystery?


Answer: Classic whodunits focused a lot on the mystery. The goal was to discover the truth about the murderer's identity and how the crime was committed.

These days, they tend to be more about about the imbalanced or dysfunctional human relationships in the community where the murder takes place. The murder is just a symptom of the relationships.

Alternatively, the murder can be the catalyst that forces the main character (usually the detective) into a situation where he/she must re-examine his beliefs - so the imbalance lies within the main character. It can also be both.

During the course of the investigation, the truth about the dysfunctional relationships will be gradually revealed and the detective may have to struggle either to remain steadfast in his pursuit of justice, or to modify his sense of justice.

The usual pattern is ...

Act 1: Doing - the murder takes place, the detective is called in to take charge
Act 2: Gathering Information - the investigation takes place; evidence and testimony are collected. Information about the dysfunctional relationships is also collected.
Act 3: Understanding - the detective makes sense of the evidence. He rules out false leads and red herrings. At the climax, the fundamental problems in the relationships are revealed, and the detective deduces the killer's identity.
Act 4: Obtaining - making the arrest, restoring balance to the relationships

The impact character is usually the murderer or one of the suspects, but he/she can be one of the detective's colleagues. What you must keep in mind is that the murderer is doing things throughout the story that the detective does not see but must deduce in the end.

Of course, on top of all your exploration of the bad relationships and the detective's inner conflict, you still need a good mystery with a plausible solution that includes who did it, why, and how.

Most plotters work out the details of the crime before they start writing. Pantsers tend to explore the relationships in the writing process, only deciding when they reach the climax what must have happened.

Both approaches have their advantages; you have to pick what works for you.

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