There is a timeless formula to writing a murder mystery that shows no sign of waning in popularity. This isn’t to say that writing a murder mystery script, let alone a good one, is easy. Far from it.
Being able to draw the audience into the murder mystery and allowing them to feel immersed in the plot is tricky. And the genre is so familiar and popular there are many tropes to avoid. Yet there are also essential beats to hit. You can see what we mean by tricky.
The murder mystery reaches across more than TV shows and films, with novels and dinner party games being a big part of the sub-genre. It’s almost beyond just a movie genre and instead, a cultural sub-genre in its own right.
The wealth of murder mysteries out there will mean that making your murder mystery script unique and able to stand out from a dense crowd will be difficult. Therefore, thinking outside the box in terms of your essential ideas going to be key. However, these essential ideas will resonate much louder when following some of the genre’s key beats.
In this article, we take a look at what makes a great murder mystery script and how to approach writing one following the most important steps…
Table of Contents
- What is A Murder Mystery?
- Examples of Modern Murder Mysteries
- The 10 Steps of Writing a Murder Mystery Script
- 1. What is Your Murder Mystery?
- 2. Setting Up Your Murder Mystery
- 3. The Characters In Your Murder Mystery Script
- 4. Perspective
- 5. Setting Up The Narrative Arc
- 6. The Clues
- 7. Rise The Tension
- 8. Timing Is Key
- 9. What Is Your Shocking Twist?
- 10. The Ending
- In Conclusion
What is A Murder Mystery?
The murder mystery is a sub-genre of the crime genre that, of course, focuses and follows the homicide of a character (or characters). Involving crime, violence, investigative teams and heartbreak rippling across the victim’s loved ones, the potential for drama is rich.
“You don’t just spontaneously develop a fatal head wound.”Detective Vega, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
A murder mystery tends to be along the same lines as a psychological thriller but has its own rightful place in the genre world. There is and can be often a crossover in this respect.
It specifically focuses its plot around the homicide of a character and the piecing together of who was culpable. The murder tends to be at the beginning of the film and the audience is given clues of varying degrees before the grand reveal of who has done the murder at the end.
A murder mystery has always been popular in the context of novels. And this popularity has transferred onto the screen. Moreover, the genre is constantly shifting and updating, keeping itself relevant.
Examples of Modern Murder Mysteries
Murder mystery films and TV shows have appeared on screens pretty consistently over the years. The genre can be traced right back to the origins of cinema itself.
But the genre has managed to survive into the modern-day relatively seamlessly. And this is because such movies both play with the genre expectations and fulfil them, creating original and memorable works. Two great contemporary murder mysteries that take different forms and show the range of the genre include…
Knives Out (2019)
Knives Out follows a detective investigator who is trying to get to the bottom of a suspected homicide that was made to look like a suicide. Taking an interesting angle on the murder mystery, Knives Out makes you chuckle, hold your breath as well as keeping you guessing as to the murder’s culprit.
Knives Out has been said to be a modern stylisation of an Agatha Christie novel, as the film takes classic murder mystery techniques and refreshes them. The perfectly developed idiosyncratic characters ensure this peculiar murder mystery grabs your attention as the pressure starts to rise on the Thrombey family.
This highly rated murder mystery is based on the true serial killer famously named the Zodiac Killer. Starring Jack Gyllenhaal and Robert Downy Jr, Zodiac keeps you on the edge of your seat for its long runtime.
Zodiac takes on the classic murder mystery formula to ensure the genre is preserved even for those who know the storyline. Taking full advantage of timing to ensure that the rise in tension is not too premature to become anticlimactic, the film hits murder mystery beats whilst employing a structure that has something unique to say.
The way in which the mystery peters out in its pacing reflects the real-life trajectory of the case. And in this, it not only keeps the audience guessing but reflects the real-world frustration of the unsolved case.
These two films are examples from the genre that do something interesting with it. And we’ll continue to refer to them throughout the article. But let’s now get down to what exactly makes up a successful murder mystery script…
The 10 Steps of Writing a Murder Mystery Script
1. What is Your Murder Mystery?
Deciding on what your murder mystery is will obviously be key to a successful script. And this should be the starting gun on your story. It needs to be believable, not too complex, and yet keep the audience guessing.
To do this, draft out some key moments in the mystery.
- What makes the murder a mystery?
- Who is going to be the suspect/s?
- Will a murder actually happen and will we see it?
- What does the murder look like?
All these questions will help you think through what your murder mystery actually is. From there you can start developing the structure and a proper storyline.
The nature of the murder is often what will make the story distinctive within the genre and marketplace. So don’t botch this bit. Make your murder original and remarkable.
2. Setting Up Your Murder Mystery
This leads nicely on to setting up your murder mystery. After you have developed your idea for a murder to be solved you need to think about how you will set it up in the narrative.
- How is it going to be introduced into the storyline?
- Will your screenplay start with the murder?
- Is the murder just implied, or will you see someone be mysteriously murdered?
- Who will discover the body?
Setting up your murder mystery script should feel like a natural process, nothing too complex in the lead up to ensure everyone is on the same page whilst watching.
As this is the sub-genre of choice, the screenplay should be mainly focused around the murder. So setting it up will need to be a delicate procedure in terms of you tackling it.
3. The Characters In Your Murder Mystery Script
Curating the characters in your script is, of course, pivotal in the success of the screenplay. The characters can add another layer to the script, whether that’s adding a comedic value through one or multiple personalities, or making the characters relatable.
Making sure these characters work together to tell the story you want, in the way you want, is crucial. These are the characters that will make your story convincing. Therefore, building their personalities, their relationships with one another and their connection to the audience becomes a turning point in the process of screenwriting.
Choosing who your protagonist will be is a big part of how you will convey your story and what you tell the audience. This will be the character that leads your narrative. So understanding the details of the character is essential to building a convincing murder mystery script.
Moreover, there are many different layers to the number of characters in the script.
- Who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist?
- Who are the supporting characters?
- Does the detective work alone or not? Who is their accomplice?
Characters are obviously essential to every screenplay. But in a murder mystery script, the characters are especially important in creating what comes in between the main beats.
In addition, how the characters manifest can be essential to the direction of the story. Characters can, for example, throw the audience off before becoming the main culprit. Or a main culprit could be revealed to not be so.
Having the murder mystery concept completed, along with the set-up and characters, means that the perspective in which the story is being told is next.
- Will it focus on a protagonist’s look at the narrative or a different character’s perspective?
Typically the protagonist will be the detective leading the investigation. But by no means does this have to be the case. In Zodiac, for example, the protagonist is not strictly a detective but a newspaper cartoonist who becomes obsessed with the case.
However, either way, whoever the protagonist is they will have to be the most active participant in the solving of the case. And this is why the protagonist is typically a detective, as they are charged with solving the murder.
The way the story is being told will change the way you write the script, and change how you make it convincing. How you want your characters to resonate with the audience will also be key in this decision.
5. Setting Up The Narrative Arc
The narrative arc will make it clear where the storyline is going. Therefore, this will be the backbone of your murder mystery script. Of course, the exposition brings the background to why the audience is watching the TV show or film. This should provide some key details that will flow through the narrative.
Introducing the characters, the setting and the circumstances/time period will most likely kickstart the narrative arc. But after this, a rise in action will follow. This may be where the murder mystery starts to unfold.
The protagonist will set off down the path that the investigation will bring. In a genre that generally has a pretty clear direction, the direction of your particular narrative is important.
What will the tone be? How will the direction of your plot both fulfil and surprise genre expectations? What will the narrative arc be framed by?
This has to be more than just the attempted solving of the murder.
- For example, in Knives Out, the narrative is based around the detective interviewing the various members of the family and piecing together what happened.
- In Zodiac, the frequency of the murders escalates, consequently drawing more and more people into the mystery.
The narrative direction is essentially the how of what your story is. How does the unfolding of the mystery happen and where will it take the characters?
6. The Clues
In murder mysteries, clues are typically planted throughout the screenplay – either in the settings and props or the dialogue. The clues can keep the audience watching and wanting more, to figure out if they are right or wrong.
It is up to you as to how subtle or obvious you want to be with your clues. However, these clues should be in line with who the murderer actually is in the end.
This could be when the audience feels like they are getting closer to finding the murderer or an incorrect character has become a top suspect. It’s all about feeling that there is progress.
Of course, red herrings can come by every now and then, but you need to remember when looking back: does it make sense that person is the murderer from the information you have given the audience? This is not to say it cannot be a shock when you reveal the murderer, but it should make sense.
Clues are like rewards for the audience. When the mystery is opaque, clues are pieces of the puzzle. And the satisfaction that can come from watching this can’t be underestimated.
7. Rise The Tension
Typically a rise in tension will come with the protagonist getting closer to revealing the mystery at hand. And this might mean, for example, that the protagonist comes closer to the actual suspect. This is where all the previous build-up reaches its potential.
We’ve spent a while immersing in the details of the murder and the details of the potential suspect. Now it’s time for the promise of that premise. And this is where the tension comes from – the balance between our investment in the story and the ambiguity as to what will happen next.
It’s key that you raise the stakes in this sense. Otherwise, the feeling of progression will be lessened. In a way it has to feel like all the protagonist‘s work has been ill-conceived. They’ve done all this work to get close to the murderer and now they themselves (or perhaps their family or the victim’s family) are in danger. It’s no longer just about who the murderer is, it’s about the protagonist‘s safety.
We can see this brilliantly in Zodiac.
- As Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets closer to the mystery, he starts receiving strange, threatening phone calls to his own home.
- This threatens not just him but his loved ones.
- And furthermore, the more he gets sucked into finding the murderer, the more his personal life suffers. This also raises the tension, as we wait to see if he will be able to hold everything together.
8. Timing Is Key
The timing of all the different elements and moving parts coming together is crucial in the execution of the murder mystery script.
If the timing is right, this will ensure these components all work together to create the story you want. When the timing is perfectly balanced, the twist and reveal will be unforeseen.
For example, the clues need to be included at the right time otherwise it will either be too obvious or not obvious at all. Make sure that the key reveals come when the tension is at its highest. And make sure this comes at a point for your protagonist where they will, in essence, be trapped.
This is the way to make the solving of the mystery feel high stakes. And this is especially the case for a mystery that has unfolded over a long period of time. If the case has unfolded over weeks, months or years, why should we feel the tension at a particular point?
This is where timing is crucial – the key movements towards the solving of the case have to come when it feels at the worst possible time for the protagonist. Or, in one way, the best possible time. The solving is necessary in this regard – it’s now or never.
9. What Is Your Shocking Twist?
Having a shocking twist can be something that sticks with the audience after watching it. When a twist in a narrative occurs it can keep the audience hooked, keeping them on their toes. But making sure this twist isn’t expected but is still a convincing part of the narrative arc, is essential.
A shocking twist needs to be handled with care but, also with creative flare. And this balance isn’t always easy. But pulling it off looks like a twist that no one will see coming but that also makes total sense within the context of how the story has unfolded.
It can make the audience re-evaluate all that has come before and in this, it can provide the story with extra resonance. Furthermore, it’s another way of raising the tension and stakes at this point in the narrative. Just when it looked like the case was coming together, something completely unexpected gets in the way. This will only intrigue the audience further, keeping them hooked for the final stretch.
10. The Ending
The ending is your moment to reveal who did it and why they did it. Ensuring you give the audience all the information they need to feel satisfied with the ending is key. The ending is the most important part of the murder mystery script, as it needs to be able to cater to expectations that have been set up in the narrative arc.
As mentioned above, when revealing the murderer it needs to make sense, otherwise, your audience will feel cheated of an ending. The climax to find out who did it is what a lot of people watch a murder mystery for. And so an unsatisfying reveal will leave the whole exercise feeling somewhat pointless.
As with all story endings, the ending to a murder mystery script is about tying everything together. And in this sense, the structure of the murder mystery ending is clear. Essentially, it’s the answer to the pivotal question running through the entire screenplay – who did it?
However, quite often the most satisfying part of this final answer is the why rather than the who. It’s the final part of the puzzle in this sense. The narrative arc might have been the how. Then the who and the why are offered up in quick succession in the finale.
The who is the answer we all crave. But the why is the justification that will stick in the mind. Why did this character commit the murder? Here is often where you can find the script’s primary theme and the script’s defining, lingering distinction.
There is a whole lot of creative freedom when writing a convincing murder mystery script, though there are definitely some essential steps to take.
- The murder mystery: Deciding on your murder mystery and ensuring you have plotted the narrative arc correctly will be the basis of your script being distinctive and successful.
- The characters: Making sure you have a convincing set of characters with different personalities, relationships and goals will make your story all the more rich and entertaining.
- The timing: Ensuring you have got all the elements of your narrative interwoven with one another and set up in the best way possible, means you should have the timing perfect. The timing of the shocking twist, rise in tension and the big reveal will be the key aspects of the story you need to time perfectly. Otherwise, the audience may not be quite so convinced by the conclusion and consequently, walk away disappointed.
The murder mystery can take many different routes. From a comedic murder mystery to a noir murder mystery, the genre is malleable and roomy.
As long as there is a what, who, how and why there will be an intriguing mystery. What fills the gaps in between these questions is what will make your murder mystery script and define whether it feels like a familiar but successful genre piece or something more distinctive, original and compelling.
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This article was written by Georgie Watts and edited by IS staff.
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