…chapter, that is. I once talked to an author who said someone told her you have to write a murder into the first chapter of your book or the story won’t make it. The comments was also made that a mystery isn’t a mystery unless there’s a dead body in it. These comments made me sit down and think about writing. There’s no formula for a mystery other than the story the writer wants to tell.
Many mysteries need to build up to the crime. You can open the book with the murder, but many times you then have to tell a back story. Why did this crime happen? What led up to it? Who was the victim? Do I, as a reader, even care about the victim? I certainly haven’t learned much about him or her if they were killed in the first chapter. What made this person tick? Why would someone murder this person?
Many television shows seem to begin with the dead body, and then the investigator(s) have to learn the back story through leads and clues. They need to keep the viewing audience glued to the screen. Books can keep you interested by carefully laying the groundwork for what’s to come. Each chapter can include a cliffhanger at the end to keep the reader guessing and interested, even if the murder doesn’t happen up front.
Some victims are actually a bad person to begin with. By building up to the death, you can create a very unlikable victim – or you can make him sympathetic because he had a horrible background which molded him into a bad guy. Some people are victims of circumstance.
Other victims are good people. Maybe someone was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a reader, I’d like to know how that person ended up in the wrong place, and why he or she had to die. I’ve heard people say there are no coincidences. I don’t believe that. Sometimes things just happen, for no apparent reason (like in wrong place, wrong time). There are all kinds of scenarios.
Then we come to the comment that a mystery isn’t a mystery unless there’s a murder. Not so, I guarantee you. I’ve read some great mysteries where no one was killed. A missing person can be a mystery. The neighbor in a book might think that Fred Smith from down the street is acting suspicious – and his wife hasn’t been seen in two weeks. So maybe the neighbor sets out to see if Fred murdered his wife and buried her body in the backyard. It makes sense to the neighbor because she never did like Fred anyway. He always came across as an off-putting man.
Sometimes suspicious acts can be misconstrued because that’s what the observer wants to see, and in that scenario lies a mystery. It could turn out that Fred is hard of hearing, or painfully shy, and this makes him come across differently than he really is. And it could also turn out that his wife left suddenly, during the night, to take care of a sick relative. In the meantime, it was a mystery until the facts were revealed. The snoopy neighbor is either going to be embarrassed for her suspicions, or she’ll feel good that she found out the truth.
Just to add a twist, what if the neighbor began digging around in the neighbor’s backyard and found bones that had been buried there for a very long time, as in an historical murder that happened long before Fred was even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes? A twist always adds to the fun.
With all of this said, I have to admit that a few authors have hooked me in the first paragraph or two with a dead body, but not often. You can hook a reader without a corpse, too.
So, if you enjoy a good mystery, don’t worry about when the person dies, or when the body is discovered, and don’t worry if there isn’t a body. Just enjoy the trip that takes you from Chapter One to The End, whether you’re the reader or the writer.
Until next time, I hope you have a good week and that no bodies show up in your neighbor’s backyard.
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Give them a try, please. They might surprise you.