When to Bump Them Off

Plotting a mystery entails schemes that operate both within and beyond the reader’s view, and a large part of figuring out how to do that involves picking the right victims. While you may kill off only one character, that is setting yourself a very hard task, since so much work must be put into laying out schemes for multiple suspects. A more hard-driving mystery will knock off maybe three victims. That way the perpetrator has to operate closer to the surface, creating potential linkages among victims and making more mistakes that can be investigated.

What are the considerations when choosing victims? That depends on when you want to kill them off. A mystery traditionally features a murder early on, often in the first chapter. That is what sets the clue-finding process in motion. What sort of character works best in this role? So early on, the victim is a stranger to the reader, so catharsis derives from the strangeness of the physical act. As an investigator explores, the victim serves the book best if they possess a range of unsavory attributes. Those can affect a number of suspects the character knew—for instance, the unhappy relatives in an Agatha Christie tale. More to the point, it opens up an array of options for your scheming.

The second victim (out of three) tends to be killed around the one-third mark. That placement serves several purposes. One, it reinvigorates the plot, since by that time an investigator may have exhausted the initial web of clues you have laid out. Two, it happens close enough to the first murder for linkages to be made between the two. 

An important factor in picking this victim is: you need more character depth to heighten the reader’s involvement. A random stranger seems shallow after you’ve spent 100 pages involving us in the main characters’ lives. We won’t know the character that well, but if you can make them count—say, a potential love interest for the main character—now you can write about what their loss means to the protagonist. 

The final victim usually expires around the two-thirds point. The killing functions best as a spur of emotion that kicks off the climax sequence. (If that sequence is shorter, maybe you’re at the three-quarters point.) How do you make the reader red-eyed, wanting revenge for the killing? It necessitates a fairly deep knowledge of the victim. That’s why a main suspect for the earlier killings is often used. Yes, you pull the rug out from under the reader, but you also have featured that character enough that we have gotten to know them. A wife of the protagonist creates powerful catharsis for the same reason—we know her and we like her by that time. 

The requirements for achieving these aims should govern your initial planning. The second and especially the third victim have to show up often for us to care about them. If they are taking up so much space, what assignments do you need to give them all along the way?

“Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.”                      —Rene Magritte

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.