Writing a Murder Mystery

Creating a murder mystery isn’t as easy as I’d originally thought. Having seen people write them, and having performed in those same murder mysteries, I’d began to get a feel for their pattern. There’s a certain style you can recognise in a well-crafted murder mystery, written by a good writer, and when you get that quality, then it’s always a pleasure to both read and perform.

Lisa Payne, a well-known actor in the area I live who deserves to be more well-known internationally, has written murder mysteries for more years than I can count; I’ve even had the good fortune to appear in a large number of them. I usually played the same variation on a theme of (in the early days) a snobbish character or (latterly) a dimwit or an alcoholic or both.

I stopped playing a snobbish character when we performed in a museum and were allowed to be featured alongside the props. I was banned from particular areas when I knocked a priceless artifact with my elbow and nearly sent it crashing to the floor; it was only Lisa’s quick reflexes that prevented it from smashing into a thousand or so pieces.

Through a convoluted set of circumstances, I was then invited to take part in a murder mystery over in Ashford, being held at Ashford Gateway by the Library staff. It had been pre-written, and the Community Development Librarian – a lovely woman by the name of Karin – organised the event so that it ended up being really successful. We had a really good time performing this piece, and the invited audience seemed to enjoy watching it. I had to adjust to a different style of murder mystery – Lisa’s structure was a slow reveal, with clues being given out over the course of the evening, whilst the Ashford Gateway model was a series of monologues at the start with a questions and answer section at the end – but it was really a lot of fun to know that there were styles out there that we could play with.

When we finished at Ashford Gateway, we all said that it would be lovely to do some more, and I cockily said – in a moment of madness – that I could probably write one if Karin would like. I don’t know why I said that so glibly, because I was always so much in awe of Lisa’s ability to craft a murder mystery that I have never been entirely sure I would be able to do the same thing. However, I’d said it out loud by this point, and Karin – in an equal moment of madness – had said, “Yes, great, write one for us and we’ll put it on!”

So I found myself in a situation where I had promised to write something that I had never written before, and only ever performed in before as a result of someone else’s craft. I sat down one day and had to really think how to create a murder mystery; what is the murder, who has been murdered and, mostly important, why has someone gone to all the trouble of killing them?

Starting from those three points, I decided to try and work on the principle that I wanted it to be funny to a greater or lesser degree. I’m not a natural for writing funny material; the odd one-line here or there, sure, but I know that I don’t necessarily have the capacity to write an entirely-funny script. And, thinking about it, I’m not sure I would want to, because the murder mystery has to have an element of seriousness underpinning it – without that, the humour wouldn’t work. I’m pretty sure I’m right on that as well.

Finding a balance was key, and I’m fortunate in that I can write for particular people; I know the cast at Ashford who are going to perform the script – I’m still one of them, even now – and so I get to write according to their personalities the more I get to know Sally, Paula, Cindy, and Jason. It’s quite a privilege to be in that position, but I also need to be writing broadly enough so that, if anyone else ever wanted to put these murder mysteries on, they could do it with their own cast without too much hassle.

I’d also made a conscious decision to not write murder mysteries in the same vein as Lisa’s; hers were funny and clever because of the way they were crafted, coming from her wonderfully inventive mind that I couldn’t even begin to match. So I deliberately chose to model the murder mysteries I was creating on the original Ashford style that they used in their first performance, the one that was brought in for the debut showing. That helped me in two ways; it gave me a structure to form a storyline around, and also meant that I wouldn’t ever try – consciously or not – to duplicate Lisa’s winning formula into a poor relation. It wouldn’t have felt right to do that, even if I could, so I left it well alone and went down my own path.

In the end, I managed to craft a story, although it took my creative – and worryingly fertile – mind a long time to develop the characters. There’s a certain knack to character development when it’s all got to be delivered verbally to the audience. It needs to flow naturally and appear unscripted, and that can be hard to deliver when you’re trying to deliver a lot of exposition through spoken word in a person’s monologue. However, I think I was at least 70% there on the first script – I like to think.

There’s also nothing like hearing your words spoken out loud by the performers, and in getting performers who are confident in saying, “Matthew, we might need to change this bit here because of …” That’s lovely, because you get other people analysing the structure of the storyline and the pace of the dialogue. When it comes to dialogue, there’s nothing quite like hearing it spoken out loud to know where the natural cadences of speech lie in different people’s minds’ the way I speak might not be the be way other people speak, or even read it in their heads.

The actors I work with on these shows probably aren’t even aware of me analysing what and how they’re speaking, but I am nonetheless. It’s also nice to see when they tell me they’re planning to make an amendment because  sentence doesn’t make sense, or because I’ve simply not noticed that the poetry of a line doesn’t flow as it should it. I make notes of those amendments and keep them tracked for next time; if there ever is a next time, of course. But if anyone else ever wants to perform my scripts, then I know that I’ve had at least one group of actors perform it through and pick up on any quirks.

Actually, having it performed again by a completely different group of actors would be the next logical step. Seeing different people perform the same parts will help me see how well the roles translate into other peoples’ mouths, and whether I’ve made the parts too specific. I don’t think I have, but it’s always worth seeing how people react to the language so that I can be challenged. Whilst I think that characters are okay, other people might pick up on things that worked for one individual, because I was perhaps being a little smart or clever, that doesn’t work for someone else playing the role. I need to be careful of doing doing too many in-jokes, because a different audience won’t get it in the same way – if at all.

But most of all, the main thing with a murder mystery is that is must make sense! No matter if you make a script deadly funny or just plain deadly, the audience will simply not enjoy it if the script isn’t logical. If there’s no internal story-line that binds the whole thing through – if you’ve thrown together random odds and sods because they’re good snippets of action, of dialogue, or of motivation, then it simply won’t make any sense. None at all. Don’t try and be clever, just be clear and concise in what you’re saying.

But most importantly, enjoy what you’re writing – find a story line that works, and develop it, but don’t go overboard on something long and convoluted. You need something that can be solved over the course of a couple of hours, with only about half an hour or so of that being set aside for the audience to actually participate. So it needs to be concise, intelligent, and written for the audience first and foremost. Keep those three things in mind, and it’ll be a damn good murder mystery – with every one you write developing and growing your own skills.

But to do that – and here is my last point – go and see your show being performed as soon as you can, or even perform in it if that’s your particular bag. Enjoy the prestige of being able to see something you’ve written being performed on stage; sure, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. But also listen and watch. Listen for language and watch for moment.  Observe what could be improved and what works well; then, write less of the former and more of the latter. Simple as that, eh? Well, when you make it work for you, then keep at it – you’ll be a better writer as a result, I assure you.

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