Jacqueline Vick is the author of the Harlow Brothers mysteries and the Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic mysteries. You can find out more about her at her website, www.jacquelinevick.com, or by clicking here, see her last post here, and buy her books here.
Mystery writers are told to get that murder on the page as soon as possible. Readers won’t wait. The multiple sources I checked agreed death should occur within the first chapter or two. I had that in mind as I finished rereading a favorite Robert Barnard mystery. In Death of a Literary Widow, forty percent of the book is over before the murder happens on page 81.
Contrary to current opinion, I relish a good setup. Somehow, getting to know the characters and setting before the murder happens feels like pulling back a rubber band. Tension increases, and when the homicide happens, we’re off! You wouldn’t run an obstacle course before first checking the layout, right? Learning about the characters feels the same to me.
This may be a minority opinion, but I’m in good company. Ever heard of Agatha Christie?
In Murder at the Vicarage, the corpse appears on page 40, several chapters in. By then, we know who Colonel Lucius Protheroe is and who would like to kill him, including his own wife and daughter. For a few suspects, we even know why.
Death on the Nile takes even longer, with the murder happening (off the page) on page 142. The body in Rex Stout’s Some Buried Cesar doesn’t make an appearance until page 59, four chapters into the book.
Does this apply to modern books? In Plantation Shudders, author Ellen Byron saves the body until page 38, the end of chapter three. However, in Dana Mentink’s Pint of No Return, Trinidad Jones discovers the corpse on page 29, at the end of chapter two.
Late arrivals might not work for a police procedural or thrillers. The detective’s job doesn’t start until there’s a body, and the writer of thrillers needs to start that ticking clock.
What do you think? Are you willing to wait through the setup before the character discovers the body? Or do you want your murder right away? In the first chapter or two. I’d love to know.
This Post Has 21 Comments
As you imply by this wonderful post, where the body is dropped depends on characters and type of mystery for my own writing and in my reading. I’ve written first-chapter body drops, and some that didn’t come until several chapters into the book, one murder coming around page 80, I recall. In all cases, I just try to make every page darn interesting with “nuggets.”
That is definitely key. Nuggets up until the death. 🙂
I’m grateful for this question and discussion. My second book in my series serves up the dead body after seven chapters and a few people have questioned my decision to do that. I wanted readers to know about the victim and care about them before they were dead, so setting up the murder seemed relevant. I think it always depends upon the content of the story. Of course, all the writing before the murder has to matter and be enticing or readers might drop out. There’s no perfect formula, and thank goodness for that. Who wants to read the same story over and over again?
That’s true. If there were a formula, I’d be in trouble.
Thanks for your provocative post, Jackie. I especially enjoyed how you showed how the masters of murder dealt with subject. I agree with you about the value of waiting to raise the tension. That being said, children’s books aren’t supposed to have corpses and gallons of blood, so in one of my books, I had a character’s death occur “off camera” before the book started. His death created a widow who then hired the detectives so that truth and justice could be served. A teacher contacted me and said one of her boy students was excited that “there was already a body in my book” and that “we’re way beyond The Magic Treehouse now!” LOL
That is hysterical! I love how your reader connected with your book. Fun.
This is a great question, Jacqueline. And like you, my preference depends on the book and the characters. Many times I’ve seen the plot where a person is missing and you just know that they’ll turn up dead, but you don’t know when and where. I like that type of plot too. As you said, the tension builds while folks look for the missing person. Great post today!
Isn’t that funny how readers “just know”? It’s the tension beforehand that keeps us reading.
It’s an excellent question! As a thriller suthor of fast-paced books that often involve dead bodies, I err on the side of sooner.
True. I think with a thriller you might have to get things going as soon as possible. 🙂
I write police procedurals, and I still prefer the set-up before the murder. Either way, it’s important to give the reader an idea of who, what, when, where, and how. The rest of the book can get to the why.
Anywhere – you can drop your bodies anywhere for me. I love set up, and I love an opening with blood oozing across the floor. My husband though, he wants page one murder. Anything else bores him. My mother, too. At 88 years she says she doesn’t have enough time to wait around for something to happen. Fortunately, there are all kinds of readers for all kinds of authors. Thanks for the intriguing post, Jackie!
That’s hilarious, Sharon! Oh, to be 88. Bring it on!
That’s hysterical. Dead bodies for everyone!
Jackie — Oh, what an intriguing post. Thank you for sharing examples from some of the greats. I’m a suspense thriller writer, and it’s sooner than later for me.
What a refreshing post! I relish a good set up but there’s a lot of need for speed these days.
I agree about the speed. It puts the pressure on us to be super entertaining up to the murder.
Thanks so much Jackie! I’m like Sharon…as long as there’s a DB, I’ll read it. It doesn’t matter to me when it happens, unless it’s the thriller I’m writing. Then, the stakes rise and the clock starts ticking. Romantic suspense too, and it helps if the DB is someone close to the protagonist.
Thrillers have different rules, it’s true.
I’ve discovered I have to sign in to WordPress every time to post, but my Twitter account goes through. Go figure.
I love the fact that it’s different and workable based on the the book, author, or how much time is needed to decide to kill the victim or feel bad they die. I’ve read books with horrible characters and can’t wait for them to die because “they need to go’. An early death of a terrible character is satisfying. However, a well crafted story can really raise the tense of who dies and when. Great post!