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December 8, 2021

How Murder Mysteries Hook Us

Murder mystery storylines are designed to play on one of our essential human qualities: the desire to know. Crafting a script that keeps that question alive isn't easy, but keeping these things in mind will make it easier.

How murder mysteries hook us

It's important to remember that the essential trait is curiosity amongst everything else. This keeps audiences engaged in stories and mysteries. This also extends beyond the answer to the central question in the story (Who's the killer? Where's the kidnapped victim? Who's next? Where's the MacGuffin?) and to the more minor questions within it.

Human curiosity drives murder mystery plots

So, a murder mystery is essentially a bundle of many smaller mysteries. This way, the audience is getting a steady stream of answers, satisfying that curiosity. The answers to these smaller mysteries will ultimately add up to the more significant answer.

You want to plant clues throughout the story, but make sure that they don't make too much sense until they are all added up. A popular way to frame your story in a way that makes this easy is to have characters recount events to others, often going into a flashback.

Not just who, but why

While murder mysteries cannot be diluted down into simply "whodunnits," the audience does want to know the "who" and the "why."

Good detectives, like Hercule Poirot, know this, which is why they often look for a motive from each possible suspect. My personal favorite murder mystery, Murder On The Orient Express, derives a significant amount of meaning from the "why" even after Poirot solves the mystery.

So when writing a mystery, you can't forget to give the perpetrator a strong motive for doing what they did. If it's just "who," it's a puzzle, but it becomes a story with the "why."

Murder on the orient express still.
Murder on the Orient Express is a great example of a mystery that hooks you in until the end.

The lead knows what the audience knows...until the end

By definition, a mystery exists when people don't know something. So it's essential that if you're writing one, keep your leads in the dark just as much as the audience is. It isn't enjoyable if the lead character knows what happened but simply doesn't tell anyone else throughout the whole movie.

The lead character is the audience surrogate. We want to have the same experience they do. The same bafflement as the clues don't add up. The same confusion as the lead suspect is murdered, breaking the case wide open again.

But then, at some point, the lead puts it together. In most cases, they've known the "who" and maybe even the "why," but they still need to catch the murderer (or kidnapper, etc.). At this point, you'll want to distance the audience from the lead character's knowledge and delay the reveal of that information until the last possible moment.

This is what builds suspense. Think of Sherlock Holmes. He wouldn't plainly say, "I know who did it, Watson; it was the Belgian Ambassador's Butler! Let's go get him." Instead, he'd say something that would build intrigue. Perhaps he would say, "Let's go, Watson. I know who killed the ambassador!" and then be out the door. This keeps the mystery and suspense alive, even though he's solved it.

The audience should have the same information (no more, no less) as the lead right up until the lead solves it, at which point the audience is in the dark until the dramatic reveal.

(And if the lead is recounting their experiences, they must be reliable!)

That's the traditional way it's done, but of course, you can always put this information right in the middle and show things from a different perspective, like in Gone Girl.

Put a spin on it

Since before film and television, the murder mystery genre has been around, and there's no shortage of great adaptations.

Read the classics, and then visit these adaptations and riffs to see how they stay faithful to the original genre while remaining fresh:

Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat's 2010 Sherlock

Beyond the casting, part of what makes this adaptation so fun is how faithful it is. Clever choices are made to update it for the period, like swapping out a pocket watch and plugging in a mobile phone.

Jonathan Lynn's 1985 Clue

The magic of this parody is that it doesn't make any winks or references to the board game source material while being incredibly self-aware. A cult classic, it's not for everyone, but it should be seen at least once to see how malleable the murder mystery genre can be.

Rian Johnson's 2005 Brick

Anachronistic dialogue in a high-school setting set the stage for Rian Johnson's breakout film. The commitment and specificity of this film make it work, sucking the audience in rather than constantly reminding us of the dissonance.

Christopher Nolan's 2000 Memento

Even backward, the murder mystery genre works because regardless of the direction of the narrative, it all drives to one question: Who did it? (Although we know the real question is "Why?") So making the lead a character with short-term memory loss (and telling the narrative backward to give us his perspective) is what makes this work, even though we "know" the ending.

For more tips on writing a murder mystery, check out these ideas from The Dinner Detective. After all, they do this every weekend!

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How Murder Mysteries Hook Us
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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