Murder Mystery: Crafting an Intriguing Puzzle of Justice

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Are you stuck with the idea of the value at stake in your genre, but struggle with how to break it down across the whole of a story? I’ve been there. I ended up creating a hybrid visual tool that combines the value at stake and a map of the scenes of a masterwork.

The purpose of this article is to help murder mystery writers identify the change in the global value at stake in their stories—Justice. I also hope to help writers of other genres sketch an idea of these progressive complications along their respective values at stake using scene types.

Rachelle Ramirez has given an great macro view covering the parent genre of the Murder Mystery: Crime. In it she laid out the value at stake of any Crime story.


What I hope to do here is help you zoom into the scene level as you analyze your draft or favorite masterwork.

I chose as my masterwork The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the Master Detective story of Hercule Poirot by Agatha Christie.

Here’s a synopsis:

Dr. James Sheppard is invited to a dinner party by the wealthiest man in town, Roger Ackroyd, along with some close friends and family members. Ackroyd seems distraught. He is found murdered after the dinner party. Poirot, the famous detective, has retired to King’s Abbot and is hired by Flora, Ackroyd’s niece. Did a dinner party guest, one of the staff, an estranged stepson, or a mysterious stranger murder Roger Ackroyd, and why?

Working separately from the police, Poirot investigates the clues while his new sidekick, Dr. Sheppard, narrates. When all red herrings and testimony point to one scapegoat whom Poirot is convinced is innocent, he investigates the secrets of all who were present (or conspicuously absent) that night.

In the end, he identifies the true perpetrator and brings them to justice.   

In my analysis, I could easily identify the core value at stake—Justice. Hercule Poirot is an exclusively externally driven protagonist with one goal: The Truth, and nothing but The Truth. As a master detective, he investigates a murder, wading through red herrings (false clues) to discover the true method and motive of the antagonist and bring him/her to justice. All the obligatory scenes and conventions of the genre are present and compelling.

My Problem

What I found difficult to identify was a scale of Justice I could use to show how specifically a good Murder Mystery moves from Injustice to Justice or Tyranny. What are the stair steps along the way?

Enter this great article by Kim Kessler and Valerie Francis on the “Powers of 10” of an Action story.

The hard work that Kim and Valerie did in breaking down the primal Life-to-Death spectrum for James the Giant Slayer compelled me to figure this out for the Murder Mystery. Kim specifically created a great visual for those of us that need to see how the value at stake breaks down more and more specifically. It’s been such a great resource for me that I recommend it to all my clients.

They wanted to break down why this Action story did not work via a new tool evaluating progressive complications. I wanted to break down why The Murder of Roger Ackroyd did work for me as a sample for Murder Mystery writers. They may have the necessary scenes, and maybe even an interesting protagonist. But do they progressively complicate?

As Kim and Valerie found, progressive complications must make the protagonist’s life—or pursuit of Justice, in our case—more difficult in order to keep your reader engaged. Positive and negative shifts of scenes move us closer to or further from his goal; in this instance, solving the murder and restoring safety to the town of King’s Abbot.

How do you complicate a Murder Mystery? The answer that comes to top of mind is clues, red herrings, suspect testimonies, and other crimes. Ok, but how do you vary these to carry a reader along?  

Functions of the Value at Stake

When you’re coming up with stair steps for your value at stake, brainstorm. I came up with some functions of Justice as

  • truth/deceit
  • clarity/obscurity
  • right action/wrong action

Go back to themes

Your characters must represent something greater than themselves.

What does the murderer represent? Deceit. Self-protection at the cost of others. Tyranny.

(Remember: 1. the bad guy is much more interesting than the good guy in the Crime novel, and 2. the bad guy runs the show—until the Investigator starts thinking differently.)

What does the protagonist represent? Truth. Clarity. Common good. Safety. Justice.

Narrative poles

What I’m trying to do on the micro level is determine a key for the positive and negative values of Justice/Injustice.

What’s the most positive possible outcome? The investigator brings the perpetrator to Justice. What’s the most negative possible outcome? The murderer escapes and Tyranny reigns.

Between those as my narrative poles, I’ve got to identify the mile markers on the long trek to Justice. Much of the story operates in the negative hemisphere: The first few chapters ominously set the stage for Injustice—crime, murder, and tyranny. Once the murder is committed (the Inciting Incident), we are in the dark on the identity of the antagonist and all the characters somewhat innocently assist the villain to cover up their own sins. The police seek swift conviction rather than the truth. Poirot is temporarily distracted as well.

A Justice Value Spectrum + Scene Map Mash-up

To guide me on my quest, I created a visual that ended up being a combination of the value at stake (Justice/Injustice) and the Scene Types I encountered along the way. I asked of each scene:

  1. Can I reduce the scene down into ONE overall event surrounding the elucidation of the crime?
  2. Did it HELP or HINDER our investigator on his quest for Justice?
  3. By how many “points” did it complicate the puzzle?
My Justice/Injustice Spectrum + Scene Map Mash-up

The Investigation: From Injustice to Threat of Tyranny

We all know the middle between Crime committed and Crime solved is a beast. A good middle build of a Murder Mystery keeps a reader engaged in solving the puzzle by generating narrative drive up and down. There’s an investigation. Injustice does not stall. Now, the characters obstruct Justice intentionally or unwittingly by keeping secrets, lying, planting false clues, etc.

What I found was each scene in the investigation could overall be attributed as a win for the murderer or a win for the investigator, without revealing too much and keeping our minds busy on the puzzle.

A point for the investigator, two points for the murderer. A Story Grid spreadsheet will show this visually in sharp plunges and spikes.

Truth shines, the protagonist has a win. = ORDER (+)

With the inadvertent help of other characters, the antagonist reigns. = OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE (—)

Obstruction of Justice (—)

Savannah Gilbo pointed out the need to give your innocent characters means and motives for keeping secrets in her article on red herrings. To take that further, consider that the realm of Justice your entire cast of characters is operating in is obscurity. Their secrets are so shameful or even illegal that they would rather a murderer get away with it than cast light onto the case. They perpetuate obscurity; they participate in obstruction of Justice.

Order (+)

What’s good for the protagonist is bad for the antagonist, and vice versa. That’s pretty standard story structure, but this is how it gets specific for the Murder Mystery:

The murderer is protected by other people’s lies and secrets, false clues, and the police’s intention on a quick close (Obstruction of Justice). The murderer is endangered by the investigator’s quest for truth (whether professional or amateur) and Justice (Order).

Again, it comes down to the external object of desire for the Murder Mystery: Safety.   

Globally, this is the turning point from Threat of Tyranny to Order. This is the uptick in the Story Grid graph. Not only does our narrator tell us in the next chapter that this divides the book in two (thank you, Sheppard), we see a shift in Poirot’s strategy. Poirot begins to investigate without his sidekick. People start approaching Poirot and Sheppard both with their secrets from the night of the murder. Those who don’t volunteer, Poirot confronts.


Because Poirot is the agent of Truth and Justice, and he is the only one in the story with the determination to bring a tyrant down. He takes control, even as the case breaks down for the police. When one suspect is caught in a lie, all alibis are thrown out, all clues become worthless.

Tyranny (—-): Will the murderer get away with it?

Even if your story does not end in Tyranny, like Thrillers and Action stories a successful Crime story must have the threat of it. It’s signaled at the Turning Point. Tyranny in a murder mystery is encapsulated in the core question, Will the murderer get away with it?

The turning point of a murder mystery: From Threat of Tyranny to Justice

The global value shifts are important to know because there needs to be a turning point in your story which prompts your protagonist to change the strategy of investigation. Up to a point, he is willing to gather information and take people’s word. But then they realize they are being lied to, or the case becomes too personal for them to play safe, or a scapegoat is being neatly framed—ultimately, the protagonist acknowledges that the villain is currently in control and must act to take control to turn the tides in the favor of Justice. Here’s an excerpt from Ackroyd that sets up the Turning Point:

“Messieurs et mesdames, I tell you, I mean to know. And I shall know—in spite of you all.”

“How do you mean—in spite of us all?” he asked, with slightly raised eyebrows.

“But—just that, monsieur. Every one of you in this room is concealing something from me.” He raised his hand as a faint murmur of protest arose. “Yes, yes, I know what I am saying. It may be something unimportant—trivial—which is supposed to have no bearing on the case, but there it is. Each one of you has something to hide. Come now, am I right?”

His glance, challenging and accusing, swept round the table. And every pair of eyes dropped before his. Yes, mine as well.

“I am answered,” said Poirot, with a curious laugh. He got up from his seat. “I appeal to you all. Tell me the truth—the whole truth.” There was a silence. “Will no one speak?”

He gave the same short laugh again.

C’est dommage,” he said, and went out.

Excerpt From: Agatha Christie. “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” iBooks.

Here, Poirot challenges the whole group, certain the villain is among them. He gives them an opportunity to redeem themselves. He moves from “Papa Poirot”—the kindly, eccentric detective that most do not take too seriously—to a threatening force who will work against them and investigate them personally. It’s an uptick in the Story Grid graph as we see Poirot take control from the villain, even without all the answers.

Soon after this, we see a shift in Poirot’s strategy. Poirot begins to investigate without his sidekick. People start confessing their secrets from the night of the murder. Those who don’t volunteer, Poirot confronts.

Why? Because Poirot is the agent of Truth and Justice in this story, and he is the only one with the determination to bring a tyrant down. He takes control from the villain, even as the case breaks down for the police when a suspect is caught in a lie, all alibis are thrown out, all clues become worthless.

How I Assigned Justice Values to the Scenes

Essential Action

So now that I have an expanded global spectrum, I still need to know how the scene-by-scene work moves the needle. To do this, I extracted the essential action from each scene. And it’s definitely an extraction—an excruciating process that required multiple drafts. Essential Action is the motivation behind the characters’ actions and dialogue. In a masterwork like Ackroyd, each bit of dialogue is very purposefully worded. I learned I had to take the whole story in context to identify the essential action of the characters in the scene. Meaning, I have to know who the murderer is so that when he/she is on the page, I know what they’re trying to do. (Take Steven Pressfield’s advice and work backwards from the climax, where you know your villain and why.) 

If you’re stuck with Essential Action, this is a good time to go back to the global.

What is the object of desire of the protagonist of a Crime/Murder Mystery story? Safety.

Safety is the goal of both your lead characters, but they differ in perspective: the protagonist (communal) and antagonist (personal).

What is the emotional core of the Murder Mystery? Intrigue.

Your readers are trying to solve a puzzle to occupy a mind consumed with issues of safety. Did you know Murder Mysteries were that important? So remember to shake up the puzzle pieces.

Literal Action

When you boil a scene down, what happened related to the crime? Did the investigator test a theory, or did a suspect lie?

Basically, they are scene archetypes.

What do you expect when you come to a Murder Mystery? A dead body. A detective is hired, the police are called in, or the amateur sleuth gets roped in somehow. The police will suspect a bad guy that’s not really the bad guy—bringing us really close to Tyranny.

What are the steps you expect a detective to take during an investigation? What are some curveballs you’d expect them to hit? These are scene archetypes.

Combining essential action, literal action, and the life value shifts of the characters in each scene, I determined my scene types and mapped these scenes in the order of progressing toward Justiceor obstructing Justice toward Tyranny.

How to assign values

Remember the rule of progressive complications: They make our protagonist’s pursuit more difficult. For example, an investigator finds a clue (+2), forms a theory (+5), and then the theory pans out (+6)–only to be undone by a suspect’s lie (-8).

Values I’ve assigned are of course subjective. A murder is our inciting incident. In Ackroyd, it’s scene 5, and a lot of groundwork has been laid already to prepare us for the crime (threat of injustice)—so I gave it a (-5) on the scale. Another scene we’d expect is when the detective is hired or the police are called in. I called that (+1) for Order. It’s the first real threat to the antagonist and the first step towards Justice.

In Obstruction of Justice and Order, I labeled some scenes generically such as “red herrings arise” and “investigator has a theory,” which occur multiple times. I could get more specific. But the key is to make sure you don’t hit the same point on the graph too many times. If you find your story is ping-ponging at the same pace for a while—e.g. Dead Body (-5) –> Investigator discovers a clue (+2), Dead Body (-5) –> Investigator discovers a clue (+2), three times over—that will get dull, predictable, and repetitive for your reader.

It becomes transparent that all the writer knows to do to keep things somewhat interesting is kill people in a way that does not complicate the original crime and muddy the investigation

Another murder is not necessarily a progressive complication unless it further complicates the pursuit of Justice. I’m sure I’m not the only Murder Mystery reader who is fatigued by (and abandons) mysteries in which dead bodies rack up with no emotional and logical connection.

Remember, logic is key for a puzzler.

Important Caveat: Read deep into your subgenre.

Reading deep into your subgenre as a Murder Mystery writer is crucial to recognizing the specific expectations of the Police Procedural, P.I., or Cozy reader. My spectrum, or scene map, is subjective to Master Detective and to my specific work of study.

As a Master Detective, Poirot has to outsmart not only the antagonist but also the police. He has to unravel every last thread. For Justice to be served, he must know the when, why, and how of each detail of the case. He has to know why the suspects, innocent of murder, are playing into the antagonist’s ruse.

If you’re writing a P.I. novel, you will need to add a mark on the spectrum: Protagonist is personally attacked or threatened, because this is an obligatory scene of both the Cozy and the Private Detective novel. Both Sue Grafton’s P.I. Kinsey Millhone and Janet Evanovich’s luckless bounty hunter Stephanie Plum get beat up, showing they are closing in on something—or someone.

I hope you’ll use this scene map + value at stake concept as a template to adapt to your subgenre.

My Final Justice/Tyranny Spectrum for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd again

How does this spectrum help us?

When you know the big global movements of your Murder Mystery, the obligatory scenes and conventions you must hit, and the value at stake, you must then do the meticulous work of creating an elaborate jigsaw puzzle for the reader. You must create a narrative drive in favor of protagonist and villain in turn. The bottom line is how can you keep your reader engaged in the solving of the riddle?

My hope is that this mash-up tool will help you in the craftsmanship of this puzzle. Look out for the publication announcement of the Story Grid Edition: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd here and also at my web site, sophiebthomas.com. Schedule a free 30-minute call with me so I can help you apply these principles to your WIP.

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Sophie Thomas

Sophie Thomas strives to be a Story Authority for authors, editors, and readers. As a certified Story Grid developmental editor, Sophie’s dream job is a junction of two passions: mentorship and great stories. She reads murder mysteries and raises babies in South Carolina.