Guest Post: So Many Murders, So Many Plotlines
By Lauren Carr
A while back, my son brought up a discussion that he and some of his friends had. According to something one of them had read on the Internet (so it must be true), there are only seven basic story plotlines. All of the stories and books written are variations of any of these seven plots. Therefore, my son said with a cocky grin, my books are not original because all of the basic plotlines have already been written.
Stab me in the heart, why don’t you? Writers are always striving for new ideas or new twists to old ideas.
As a mystery writer, I confess that I do work off of one basic plotline: commit murder, search for clues, piece together the clues, identify the killer, catch the killer. Hopefully, my main characters can have some fun and adventure along the way.
Now, this is not to be confused with being a formula writer, which I believe is what my son was insinuating. Writers who use formulas work almost from a template, not unlike an administrative assistant will use a Word Doc template for a letter: para 1 (introduction), para 2 & 3 (message), para 4 (closing).
While the basic plotline for murder mysteries may be the same, the genre has come a long way, baby. Since Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloin Letter, the murder mystery genre has grown and branched and sprouted new sub-genres: thriller, suspense, cozy, romance-mystery, medical-mystery, courtroom-mystery, hobby-cozy, etc. As a writer or a reader, you name what you like or what you don’t like and you can find it in this genre if you hunt hard enough.
The twists and turns that a murder investigation can go are as numerous as the setting (small town/big city), motives, weapons, and suspects.
One website I found listed eighteen common motives for murder from money to jealousy to desire for fame to survival. We aren’t even talking about the less common ones: to benefit someone else. An example is bumping off someone in order to have a loved one inherit.
In my latest Mac Faraday Mystery (Candidate for Murder), Mac Faraday and Police Chief David O’Callaghan have to check off a few of these motives when looking at the murder of a candidate for mayor. The obvious conclusion is that she was killed by her cheating husband. Maybe, maybe not.
Anyone who has seen the political news this year knows that politics is not for the faint of heart. Could her political opponent have killed her to clear the way for him to win the election? Or maybe someone in her own political party wanted her out of the race to make way for a different candidate. What did she have on who to reach and keep her position of power?
Weapons: Used to be knives, guns, and poisoning with arsenic or strychnine were the standard weapons for murder. I remember reading a mystery that was written years ago where the detective concluded that the killer was a woman because the weapon was poison. Such sexism would not fly anymore.
Do you want your victim to drop dead instantly or do you want a delayed reaction? Choose your poison wisely.
Yes, the genre has really changed since the basic plotline was created.
Old school murder mysteries used to have the mystery end with identifying the killer, who, in the face of all the evidence against him or her, breaks down and confesses. However, in recent years, readers have become so savvy about the justice side of things, that it is not enough for the detective to simply identify the killer. How many cases have made the news of known killers walking free because of a mess up by the investigating officer violating a suspect’s rights, evidence being compromised, or some other legal loophole or twist by the defense attorney?
No, now mystery writers have to be on top of how the legal system works. It is not enough to identify the killer. The detective also has to catch him in such a way that there is justice in the end. The reader has to close the book knowing that the killer is going to jail for a very long time.
Yes, maybe my son is right in that there are seven basic plotlines. Maybe at the very root of a book or story, this is the case.
When it comes to a murder mystery, the possibilities are endless if you use your imagination. In the hands of an imaginative writer, anything can sprout from those roots.
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