Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Crime up front? Murder she wrote?

On the Make Mine Mystery blog, Marvin Wilson referred to an article on the Top 10 Rules for Mystery Writing by Ginny Wiehardt, which you can find by clicking on the title. Marvin wrote about her number one rule: in mystery writing, plot is everything. I decided to comment on a couple of related rules a little farther on.

Her Rule 3 says to “introduce the crime within the first three chapters of your mystery novel.” She adds, “The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook your reader. As with any fiction, you want to do that as soon as possible.”

I agree that something criminal needs to take place up front or you won’t have much of a mystery. I’m not a big fan, though, of rules that say “you must do this by Chapter X.” In The Marathon Murders, my fourth Greg McKenzie mystery, the first body doesn’t show up until Chapter 8. But by the end of Chapter 3, it’s clear somebody is missing and not under auspicious circumstances.

This leads to Ginny Wiehardt’s Rule 4, “the crime should be sufficiently violent -- preferably a murder.” I’ll accept that. After all, murder is so…final. It isn’t a reversible error, as a lawyer might say. She continues, “for many readers, only murder really justifies the effort of reading a 300-page book while suitably testing your detective's powers.”

However, unless the book features a police detective pursuing a case, murder may not be the central crime, at least initially. Since private detectives aren’t normally involved with murders, unless it’s a cold case where the family wants to know what happened, our PIs are usually pursuing some other crime when they encounter the aftermath of a murder.

In my new book, The Surest Poison, my detective is investigating the origin of a massive toxic chemical dump. He is involved only peripherally with the murders until close to the end. There are kidnappings and assaults and explosions, but he isn’t looking for a murderer.

How do you feel about it? Should the actively-pursued crime be murder, and does it need to occur right at the first of the story?


Anonymous said...

Good post, Chester. I agree there is no set "such and such HAS to happen" by a certain chapter, but the general order of Ginny's formula is a good one. I think the most heinous of crimes in the story need not happen right away. You can build up to that as you say. Hey you'll probably enjoy my post on Free Spirit tomorrow. One of your mystery writer colleagues, Mark Phillips is on tour with his new book and he's doing a three part essay series on the use of violence in literature. Very insightful stuff.

Marvin D Wilson

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks, Marvin. I read one of Mark's posts on violence and it was very insightful. I need to check out the others.

queenofmean said...

I've been spending this evening wandering from site to site. I'm glad I happened on your post here.
I'm not an expert by any means on the subject, but I have read a lot of mysteries & am working on writing one of my own. I've read ones where the crime happens first thing & others where it doesn't happen for several chapters. As long as the leading chapters keep me interested (setting up the crime I know is coming, the suspects, etc), I'm good with it. I certainly don't see it as a requirement that it has to happen within the first 3 chapters.
I guess the crime doesn't have to be murder, but that seems to be the ultimate of crimes, esp. ones worth writing a mystery novel about. Most of what I do read does have murder as the crime.
Interesting discussion anyway.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I agree that there are exceptions to every rule. I think that it's up to the writer to find the best method in which to tell the story in the most readable way.

Jane Kennedy Sutton

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks for your views, queenofmean. I agree about the murder angle. All of my books involve murder, though it may not be the initial focus of the case.

You put it well, Jane. Everything about the story and the writing process itself should mirror the writer's style. No cookie cutter approach will work for everybody.

Helen Ginger said...

A lot of it depends on the genre. Some cozies don't have a murder until way late in the book and then it happens off-screen. Some thrillers or suspense have a murder in the first sentence.

The "hook" doesn't have to be the murder. But there does need to be a hook. Soon.


Chester Campbell said...

Should we say no hook, no book? Grab 'em early is my motto.