Friday, March 2, 2018

When is the murder? by Susan Oleksiw

Back in the dark ages, I struggled with my first mystery novel. Just about every reader I knew talked about how important the opening pages were. Hence I labored over them, writing and rewriting the opening chapter. If what I had didn’t seem to work, I wrote another opening chapter. After weeks of agony, I had three opening chapters, one right after the other. It took a tactful inquiry from a former Knopf editor to set me straight.

“Couldn’t we get to the dirty deed a little sooner?” Natalie asked. When I realized what I’d done, piling one opening onto another, I got the point. The murder came much, much earlier in my first mystery, Murder in Mellingham.

I’ve been wishing there were more Natalies in the world these days. Over the last year or so I seem to have zeroed in on mysteries by writers who prefer to delay the inevitable, so long delayed in fact that I begin to wonder if the murder will ever happen. Which raises the question, when should the murder occur?

In one book set in New York City, the author takes eighty pages to set up the crime, introducing the two sleuths and the core characters, which are eight. We see these individuals repeatedly but the writer doesn’t go deeply enough into any one of the suspects to leave me feeling I know him or her well. It’s all a lot of bantering and bickering.

Another author whose two books I’ve enjoyed immensely doesn’t even admit that a death perhaps long ago was even a murder. She meanders for two hundred pages exploring the possibilities and just as the book ends manages to have a character make a decisive statement that indicates that yes, indeed, a crime was committed. But just as the book is about to end, the reader grasps that enough detail has been uncovered to ensure that the now curious detective will solve the crime. The first book was annoying, the second one confusing but riveting.

When does a murder have to occur, or be recognized as the central crime of the story?
I took Natalie’s advice and excised almost seventy pages of fabulous, deathless prose—hundreds of darlings were cast aside—and introduced the murder at the end of the first chapter, within the first fifty pages. I consider that a good guide—first chapter, first fifty pages. If it takes me longer, perhaps I’m not sure what the story is about.

By pushing myself to bring in the murder sooner rather than later, I am forced to think through the characters and their motivations, set up the major points of tension, and make choices about subplots. I can establish the setting rather than indulging my pleasure in talking about a place I find interesting, which is not the point of the novel. I draw in the reader to the story and characters, and get started. All of this can be changed as I write and make discoveries. But I’m not wandering in the first chapter. I’m establishing the basic thrust and outline of the story, and setting a path for me to follow.

My rules or guidelines may not be for everyone. After years of reviewing for mystery and general review publications, I have come to be accepting of the many ways writers get into their stories. But there is the key. Get into the story, and don’t make the reader wait, flipping to the end of the book to see how many more pages, or wondering when something really interesting is going to happen.

The murder holds the reader’s attention and tells her what to focus on in the coming chapters. But it’s not the only way to tantalize the reader. Find what works and use whatever holds the reader’s interest and satisfies that ideal reader sitting out there waiting for our next books.
Susan Oleksiw @susanoleksiw


Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Very interesting!
Good luck and God's blessings

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Very often these days the first murder is introduced in the first chapter. Readers nowadays have short attention spans. We writers have to grab their attention and keep it. Your points are well-taken.

Alice Duncan said...

Great blog, as always, Susan. Unless there's a good reason to wait, I've always thought it was good to get the murder over with in the first chapter. On the other hand, then you have to figure out who did it and why. I used to have no problems doing that. These days, my brain seems to be stuck in the mire.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jacquie, you're certainly right about the short attention span, and the need to grab readers' attention as early as possible. I'm one who tries to introduce the murder in the first chapter or the first fifty pages or so.

Alice, yes, once the murder is set on the page I too have to look forward to all those blank pages and wondering how am I going to write about this? Who did it and why? Putting a body on the page is easy. Figuring out how it got there is, well, that's the hard part.

Thank you both and Pam for sharing your views.

Carole Price said...

A crime was committed in the first chapter of my new series and has left me several avenues to follow. It happens at the opening of Sundance, a stained glass shop.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Your new series sounds interesting, Carole, with a terrific choice of setting. I've been in several glass shops and they always make me nervous, all that fragile material just waiting to be bumped into. Good luck with the series.

Earl Staggs said...

Susan, I think beginning writers succumb to the temptation to fully introduce and flesh out the main character and the setting BEFORE the body is discovered. Experience can teach them how to introduce and flesh out the character as the character examines the body and the crime scene. While there are no hard and fast rules and there are always exceptions, a good rule of thumb might be: A murder mystery doesn't begin until the body is discovered.

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