How To Plot A Murder – by R. Franklin James

Today, please welcome my friend and fellow mystery author R. Franklin James, who writes the Hollis Morgan Mystery series. She’s taking over the blog today to share some advice on murdering imaginary friends. And so, with no further ado:

How to Plot a Murder (Part 1)

by R. Franklin James


Being a mystery writer has a lot of advantages. For one, you’re allowed to ask questions that would ordinarily draw curious, perhaps even apprehensive stares from strangers, but mention you’re a mystery author and most people will nod with understanding.

When plotting a murder an author must consider the same elements of the law: means, motive, opportunity and one more critical element, caring.

Means is fairly simple. First, is your mystery a contemporary story? Or, like Susan Spann’s latest historical, Blade of the Samurai, it’s a literary voyage to another land proving murder is timeless. Means will define the weapon or killing method you use to bring about the victim’s demise. Researching the “how” may involve researching the right poisons, where to buy an AK47, how to take over an airplane, or how much arsenic can you add to go undetected in coffee. Readers these days are very sophisticated, there’s always someone out there who will protest if the author hasn’t done their research.

For instance, if your gun is a revolver, it’s not going to have a clip. If your poison is strychnine, its effect is instantaneous and the victim is not going to be able to dial 9-1-1.

As an author you want to write the best book you can. You want to write so that the reader forgets they’re reading a book, and they won’t get pulled out because your facts don’t hold up. They are there with you on the pages.

Then there is motive.

The “why” of a murder may be detached (a contract kill) or close (a family dispute) and everything in between. However, in a traditional mystery we’re not referring to persons involved in accidents or victims of happenstance. Nor are we talking about thrillers. Clearly terrorists kill without knowing their victims, but typically in most mysteries as in real life, it’s personal. In a mystery the villain usually kills for: revenge, to avenge, passion, greed, and even expediency—the list can go on and on. The rationale of a murderer’s motive goes to their psyche and that is as individual as are people. Even the most justified murderer has to rationalize why killing another human being is the only recourse left. As an author, the building of the villain’s motive is critical to keep the reader engaged and the plot believable. If the motive isn’t strong, the story is likely boring and the reader will not finish the book.

It is easy to see that the “how” and the “why” of the plot are not mechanical logistics, but rather the basis for getting inside the head of the villain. It is not only the protagonist that must carry the story, a credible and formidable villain must also partner with the protagonist to lead the reader page by page to its irrevocable conclusion.

Next month: Part Two – How to Plot a Murder

R. Franklin James, Author of  The Hollis Morgan Mystery Series:

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