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 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.
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.
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.
We get a lot of cold callers at murder towers, but this is from a very persistent operative. Just to set the record straight, I do know the phonetic alphabet, I don’t have a dog, and my wife is lovely.