Writing a murder mystery

Part 2 – the killer

A while ago I wrote about how to start writing a murder mystery, focusing upon the characters rather than the plot.  All of our mysteries start with assembling a draft set of characters that fit within the overall theme of the story, finally allowing us to begin considering who should be killed off.

In any story there needs to be a web of inter-relationships between characters, with the prime focus of these relationships being that of the victim or victims. Ideally most, it not all, of the suspects should have a relationship with the victim(s) which might prompt them to consider killing them, so I always draw up some sort of chart early on that helps define and refine this important aspect.

Web of intrigue

Web of intrigue

I usually keep the prime suspects below 10 or so, otherwise the story can get too convoluted, but if the party is larger there may be additional victims which may or may not have been killed by those suspected of earlier crimes.

Having established motives we then need to consider the crime itself and ways that guests can rule out suspects to be left with just one guilty party.  A successful murderer needs three things:

  • A means: a way of killing the victim
  • A motive: as established above, a reason they’d want the victim dead, and
  • An opportunity: to be at the right place at the right time.

Let’s assume that the victim is killed out of sight of the other guests after the main course.  Who left the room after this point?  They have an opportunity.   If someone didn’t leave, it wasn’t them, but did the guests notice who left and who didn’t?

Also, who at a motive BEFORE the victim was killed.  Perhaps we discover a secret will after the death of the victim and the benefactor is surprised by it… in that case, why would he or she kill the victim?

Perhaps the means of death is beyond some of the suspects.  Who had access to poison or could make a bomb, rewire a circuit or accurately fire a gun?  You should establish these points early in the plot as you set up the actual murder.  Motive always sets someone up as a potential murderer and means and opportunity always allows them to be eliminated.  Play fair, and the guests will all have an equal opportunity to work out whodunnit.

 

 

Murder Mystery Hen Parties

Murder to Measure has been dealing death and deception for nearly 10 years now (watch this space for 10th anniversary specials), and in that time we’ve performed at hundreds of private parties, with enthusiastic guests baying for blood and retribution over perceived wrongs.  We’ve had bloodbaths at birthdays, assassinations at anniversaries, corporate carnage and slaughters at stags, but above all, it seems that hen parties are the most drawn to the murder mystery vibe.

I’ve lost count of the number of hen parties I’ve attended over the period, but am always amazed at how readily the assembled girls argue, fight and generally make a scene when confronted with a devilish plot dealt our by devious characters.  It seems that hens love to let their hair down and discover their inner murderess as much as we love to stoke the fires by bringing deception. death and general  disorder to a group of girls who want to bond over a night or weekend of fun and new experiences.

It’s rare for a hen party to consist of a group of people who all know each other at the outset, so finding an activity to break the ice and get everyone bonded can be difficult, but one of our murder mystery dinners can certainly help with this, as guests are encouraged to come out their shells and generally have fun with the story without worrying about how everyone else sees them – when you’re playing a role, you can be whoever you want to be.

Our success in the hen night market means that we have dozens of murder mystery plots for an all female group, but we’re always happy to work with the hen or bridesmaids to develop a story that will fit the occasion to a T.

Murder Mystery Character Names

I wrote previously about names in murder mysteries and this set me thinking about some of the names I’ve used throughout our various stories.  Our plots events are always designed around a murder or murders which can be solved by careful observation and listening, logical (if sometimes lateral) thinking, but in parallel with that we ensure that the story is fun, and that often also means funny.  Characters come before plot, and in a typical mystery, finding an appropriate name helps suggest their key character traits, which is useful both for the actor and those watching the story unfold.  Writers such as Charles Dickens were great at this – you can’t imagine an “Ebeneezer Scrooge” being a kindly young chap any more than “Uriah Heap” would be an elegant gentleman Alfred Jingle a terrible curmudgeon.

Taking the Dickens approach to naming characters is a good approach, and many names do immediately suggest a certain upbringing for a character; think of Hugo and Wayne for instance.  If we want to immediately send a message to the audience or the performer, a punning name can help, and it also often also ticks the box marked “fun”, particularly if the performer doesn’t realize the significance in their name until they’ve been playing them for 2  hours.

In nearly 10 years of penning our mysteries, many of these names remain in the memory banks as being particularly apposite.  Some of my favourites include:

  • Talented, but somewhat foul-mouthed chef, Gordon Blue. What’s most annoying about this is that my wife deserves credit for the name.
  • Pugnacious female lawyer, Sue DiAsov.
  • Feckless and in-bred upper class English twit, Juan Sandwich-Short (his father meant to call him Julian, but the pen used to register the name was running out of ink).
  • Beautiful and well proportioned actress, Gloria Stitzenhaas.  This is often one of those “Oh I get it now” names after a couple of glasses of Prosecco at a hen party.  For younger audiences, she often becomes Gloria Slooks.
  • Country lane chauffeur Onslow Rhodes.
  • Chatty hairdresser Wendy Ugoaway and beautician Tanya Hyde.

There are many more and I’ve spent many frustrating hours hunting through baby name sites to find something appropriate for a new character until the obvious hits me.  My favourite has yet to see an outing, but one day we will see the curmudgeonly Yorkshireman, Willy Eckerslike.

 

How to write a murder mystery party

Part 1 – Characters

It’s been a while since I wrote about generating ideas for a murder mystery, leaving the reader in suspense about how actually to write the story once the idea begins to crystallize.  With Murder Towers emerging from the traditional winter glut of parties and dinners, now seems like a good time to begin to put flesh on the bones of the story with a few more hints and tips on creating a mystery that is intriguing, challenging, entertaining and, importantly, solvable.  This post is the next step in explaining how I go about writing a murder mystery party.

I wrote previously about briefly about characters.  I always find that once the setting is determined, the characters are the next elements to develop, and provided you have created a cast of interesting suspects, elements that drive the plot such as motives and secrets begin to suggest themselves.  Things usually work out best if you have a good mixture of characters, from the seemingly innocent and benign through to the out-and-out cads, cheats and scoundrels.  Usually most should have skeletons in the closet and secrets to hide and one or more should be at the centre of lots of interactions so that most of the suspects have a motive to want them out of the way.  If you’re writing a novel or even a play, you often have more time to establish complexities in a character, but when writing a murder mystery game it’s often advisable to start with some fairly stereotypical traits and stock characters. Subtleties and unexpected behaviours can be written into the character as you flesh out the details of the plot, but initially big, bold and obvious enables the actor to immediately get to grips with the character and encourages early engagement with the audience.

An Example – Mummy’s the Word

nile-death_murderPerhaps the best way to describe this process is with an example.  I was recently asked to produce a story set in Egypt during the early part of the 20th century.  I had a list of those people who wanted to play roles, and their real-life characters also helped me to come up with a cast of suspects and character traits that could potentially lead to a web of intrigue and mystery.  The required setting begins also to suggest Death on the Nile, the unearthing of tombs and ancient curses.  Right from the start, therefore, I knew that I’d need an intrepid set of archaeologists and their support team, full of professional rivalries, potentially dangerous working environments and superstitions.

Starting with the archeologists, I created an expedition leader who was full of ambition and the desire to find fame and fortune in sun-parched lands.  A typical Edwardian gentleman explorer, his expedition was funded by the an aristocratic lady-of-means and supported by mummy expert in very much in the “eccentric scientist” mould.  Glancing through the list of actors, I was lucky enough to have a vet, who became the animal and environment-loving camel trainer, and an Egyptian, who became the curmudgeonly leader of the local workforce.   Add a former army colonel, always good for a bit of banter, and a caring but somewhat incompetent expedition doctor and the cast is almost complete, ready for some elements of conflict and mystery.

What’s in a name?

Murder mystery dinner party games are usually played with the tongue planted very firmly in the cheek and finding suitable names can help establish the character traits early and also help everyone remember who is who.  For that reason, puns can be good, and immediately suggest an occupation or character: consider the doctor, Dicky Ticker;  chauffeur, Onslow Rhodes, the beautiful Gloria Slooks or the caring nanny, Molly Coddle as examples.  If you’re using puns, however, you generally have to be consistent, otherwise guests will be looking at some names and thinking “I don’t get it” if there isn’t a joke in it.  This can be particularly challenging for families all of whom share a surname, so last names such as Down, which has many possible options (Neil Down, Luke Down, Ben Down) can be useful.  Sometimes I find that once I have a name for a character, this immediately suggests a set of characteristics and foibles, and launches the story off into new, unexpected directions.  Double-barrelled names can also be useful, particularly for the aristocracy.

Returning to our example, the expedition leader needed a posh sounding name, and the name Sir Digby Hand suggested someone who eschewed modern technology in his expeditions and preferred to be in touch with the soil.  His benefactor became Lady Cash-Down (see what I did with the double-barrel there?) and the labourer, Manu Duz (Man who does).  Our Egyptologist was christened Emma, known as “Em”, Balmer, and the rest of the cast followed suit.

Moving On

Once the characters are sketched out and named, we need to decide what dealings they have with everybody else in the story and begin to flesh out some possible secrets and motives for murder.  Note that I still haven’t moved on to “plot” yet – I’ll get to it, I promise, but in the meantime you’ll have wait for the next exciting installment in the mind of a murder mystery writer.

 

 

 

Mystery in Curry Rivel

Murder to Measure has a bit of a soft spot for Curry Rivel. Back in July 2004 we presented our first ever mystery under the name of Murder to Measure, and this was followed in August with a private party in the same venue. Nearly 9 years on we’ve progressed to doing over 100 shows a year, but we were once again called back to our old haunt tonight for another rendition of the ever popular “Allo Goodbye”, based, very loosely, on ideas from a TV show you may have heard of.

The good folk of the village did us proud again, and it was great to see so many familiar faces ready to lap up our own brand of murder and mayhem.  In 2004, we were faced with two rival Indian restaurants, and now we had the Allies at our doorstep and desperate attempts by the Gestapo to defeat their advances.  Thanks to all concerned – ’twas a fun night.

Murder Mystery Fun

At Murder to Measure we believe that our mysteries should be fun for all, but also that they should be solvable by those who pay attention and think logically about all that they have seen and heard during their dinner. At the heart of our stories is a logical plot, but even if you’d rather just go with the flow and enjoy some unpredictable hijinks, we want to ensure that the characters and events are fun to interact with.

Often, therefore, the suspects are fairly recognizable stereotypes with plenty of eccentricities and foibles, and even the nastiest sorts are engaging souls who want to show off their character to the general public.  If you want to make the most of an evening in the company of potential murderers, talk to them, probe them and find what makes them tick.  You may intrigue, attract or even annoy  them, but if you find their weak spots or predilections you’ll usually be rewarded with a few juicy tit-bits to help you make sense of the events.

Acting at a murder mystery dinner

Acting at a murder mystery dinner is a very specific skill and not one possessed by all.  Some very talented actors  blanche at the thought of performing in the midst of a live audience, with no fixed script and with the knowledge that the audience can, and will, ask them anything.  Others relish the idea and thrive on walking the thin line between controlled improvisation and total chaos.  Although a lot of a performance is improvised, there is a key difference between a mystery event and that of a pure improv performance – mysteries have a plot and characters that must be followed, otherwise the logic of the solution breaks down and the story doesn’t work.  It might be fun to suddenly announce “Actually, I was born a woman and raised by wolves” at a comedy improvisation show, such an outburst would usually cause total confusion during an investigation and force everyone to back-pedal to keep the story on track.

We’ve therefore defined a few rules that should be followed by actors at our mysteries, and it’s worth mentioning a few in case you are considering hosting your own party.

  • Stick to the plot – there are certain key events that must happen at a certain time and in a certain way.  Often they are key to the logic of the solution, so, for example, if you are asked to leave the room at a particular time – do so.  It may be that your character needs to have the opportunity to kill someone, and if they die whilst you are in full sight of the guests, we’ll have  a tough time convincing them that it was you.
  • Stick to the character – as with plot, there will be several key facts about your character that will be vital to the story, and you should make sure these are revealed consistently.  You should be in character from the moment that you’re in the room with guests until the moment that you are sure you cannot be seen or found.  Guests often ask things of you, the actor, rather than you, the character, and you should always answer as the latter.  A question such as “So how many of these [murder mystery] things have you been to?” should be answered with something along the lines of “My granny’s funerals?  This is my second.”
  • Improvise what you don’t know – within reason. It’s practically impossible to predict everything that guests may ask a character and they often ask things that having nothing to do with the plot.  It’s important, however, when creating a fully rounded suspect to appear to know the things that you would be expected to know, such as your birthday, the names of your parents etc etc.  If it’s not in your character profile, then it’s fine to make it up, but sometimes the information you give will be something that other suspects will be expected to know, so you need to get that information to them if not agreed in advance.

    Consider the case when you are playing Lord Fawfaw and another character is playing your sister Lucy Fawfaw. Your parents are both dead, but their deaths have nothing to do with the plot.

    “So how did your parents die?”
    BAD ANSWERS “I don’t know” or “I forget” – unless you are playing an amnesiac or a goldfish.
    BETTER ANSWER “I really don’t like to talk about it, it left me so emotionally scarred – I’m surprised you could be so heartless as to bring it up.”
    BETTER ANSWER STILL  “Oh, I remember it like it was yesterday, don’t you Lucy? I can see them now, waving at the shore as their little rowing boat plunged over the waterfall. Their screams still haunt my dreams, don’t they Lucy?”

  • Engage the audience from the outset and be dynamic and expressive if your character is meant to be. If you’re sullen and depressive, be actively sullen and depressive – murder mystery is usually more pantomime than Pinter, and few are written as serious character studies.

As with any rules, there are exceptions and the odd occasion when it might be appropriate to acknowledge the fact that the whole thing is not real, but unless you’re very sure about this, stick with them and ensure that everybody enjoys themselves.

 

Generating Murder Mystery Ideas

The late, great Douglas Adams was often asked “Where do you get your ideas from?” to which he would reply “A small mail-order company in Cleveland.”  It may not be useful advice for those looking to start out as a writer, but it does illustrate the fact that it’s not usually possible to say where that creative spark of inspiration may come from.

When I’m writing a murder mystery, the starting point is usually an overall theme, usually a time, place or an occasion. If I’m writing for a large group there is usually a uniting set of interests within the party and this can get the juices rolling, so that for a group interested in, say, fashion, I may set the story in a fashion show.

Once the theme is set, characters will begin to come to mind.  The joy of writing a murder mystery is that generally the characters are rarely subtle: stereotypes are often preferred as it makes the story fun to perform and allows the audience to understand the motivations and concerns of the suspects quickly.  Going back to our fashion show example, we would therefore begin to sketch out a list of possible attendees – designers, models, journalists, stylists, organisers etc – and then flesh out their character, motivations and attitudes.

Note that I haven’t mentioned a word about “plot” yet – that’s a consideration far down the line, and one for another post and another day.

 

 

 

 

Allo Allo Murder Mystery

At Murder Towers we love the challenge of being asked to write stories to a specific theme. Sometimes these themes require a lot of research followed by extensive head-scratching trying to fit everything we’ve learned into a coherent yet amusing plot. One group asked for a story involving “Superheroes trapped in a bad 80s Disco”, and we’ve yet to be asked to do anything quite so unusual, but we’d happily rise to the challenge.

Sometimes, however, stories almost write themselves. We’ve written a number of new plots for one of our regular venues, The Gallery in Chard, and recently, to celebrate Bastille Day, they asked us to produce a story based around the BBC sitcom, ‘Allo ‘Allo. To those unfamiliar with the programme, it’s a spoof of any number of French Resistance dramas, most obviously Secret Army, and features a host of idiosyncratic characters and unlikely occurrences which centre around a café which has become the somewhat reluctant hub of defiance against Nazi occupation.

From the hapless, but seemingly sexually irresistible café owner, René via the spy posing as a policeman whose French could be better, through to Gestapo officer, Herr Flick, the characters are sit so well in the comedy murder mystery genre that it becomes relatively straight-forward to use them to inspire a similar story involving hidden contraband, explosions and secret dealings where death could occur at any moment.

It was fun to write and even more fun to perform, as over-the-top accents and acting are de rigeur with such a story.  As ever, with any new story, you see ways of making it better as the night wears on, but the guests loved it and we left with a buzz.