Cocktails at six, murder at seven

Here’s a question from a few years ago, on another forum, that I still think about today:

At what point in the book should the murder happen?

Well, the simple answer, in my opinion, is that there are three places in the story where it would be most appropriate for the primary murder to occur: right at the beginning, within the first few pages; at roughly the 15-20% mark; or at roughly the 50% mark. And now you’re wondering, why those three places in particular? Why not anywhere else? For that, we’d have to go a little more in-depth. We’d have to ask the real question:

What is this story really about, and what is the function of the murder in it?

First, we need to consider the structure of a story, which usually goes something like this:

  1. We have an Ongoing Situation.
  2. An Inciting Incident starts the action.
  3. Our hero does things to move the plot along.
  4. Midpoint Climax: we reach a point where we can’t turn back.
  5. Our hero deals with the fallout of their actions.
  6. Things reach their darkest.
  7. Our hero fights back, leading to a Final Showdown.
  8. “And they lived happily ever after.”

(Modern theorists talk about the so-called “three-act structure”: [1-2], [3-4-5-6], [7-8]. I prefer to think in terms of the Shakespearan five-act structure: [1-2], [3], [4], [5-6], [7-8]. Meanwhile, hour-long television shows, with commercials every quarter-hour, organise into four acts ([1-2], [3-4], [5-6], [7-8]) and stage musicals seem to prefer two acts ([1-2-3-4], [5-6-7-8]). Regardless of number of acts, they’re all functionally identical in terms of the milestones they hit along the way.)

So, what is the function of the murder in this story?

Option 1: The murder is part of the Ongoing Situation and is thus introduced within the first few pages.

If we start with the murder, we must spend the first section of the story being convinced as to why this murder matters. We’re probably more invested in the detective than in any suspects the investigation turns up afterwards. The Inciting Incident would be the thing that convinces our hero to investigate the mystery himself, or, if that was never in doubt, the thing telling our hero that this mystery is somehow special. The murder is an ongoing source of conflict, and the story is about how our hero deals with this conflict. This is probably most common in police procedurals, where the existence of crime is the status quo.

Option 2: The murder is the Inciting Incident and therefore occurs at roughly the 15-20% mark.

In this sort of story, we spend some time getting to know and care about the world and the characters. We learn about the ongoing conflicts within this circle, and then, boom! the murder happens and everything is turned upside-down. The murder and its solution is really the means by which we resolve the existing conflicts concerning the characters. This is probably the most popular model in cosy mystery stories, as it lets us reach the murder already caring about how things will play out for the characters involved.

Option 3: The murder is the Midpoint Climax and occurs at roughly the 50% mark.

In this story, we follow the characters as they strive to resolve their personal conflicts, until the murder occurs as the inevitable consequence of their individual scheming. Everything after that is damage control. This is probably the most versatile sort of story, because, despite being nominally a mystery story, it can really be about anything in the world. I suspect that Murder, She Wrote was able to survive so long on the air because of this model, which allowed each episode to stand out as its own miniature soap opera.

Which of these options we go for depends on the type of story being told. Because here’s the thing about mysteries: they’re never just about the murder and its solution. The mystery as a whole is largely a framework on which the rest of the drama is built. This is unavoidable, because that drama is what makes us care about the mystery in the first place. When we ask when the murder occurs in the story, we’re really asking about how the murder relates to the drama: whether it is something causing the drama, or something caused by the drama, or something in between. The only thing that really matters is that the murder gets properly resolved in the end.

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1 Response to Cocktails at six, murder at seven

  1. Excellent analysis! I would add that what counts as “properly resolved” also depends on the story. In both Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, the murderer is found in the end, but forgiven. Not to mention in the latter case the question of whodunit is in fact quite complicated. So yeah, whatever the story needs. Just like I always tell beginners. Thank you!


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