The Hidden Backstory of a Mystery
In a traditional mystery the puzzle pieces the sleuth uncovers are based on the relationship between the victim and the villain. As you construct your story, you reveal the layers of the victim’s life as your sleuth learns more and more about the victim’s world.
At various places in your story, you set up clues for the sleuth that reveal the connection between the victim and the villain. Part of the fun of writing your mystery is hiding those clues to baffle your sleuth and keep your reader guessing.
The Relationship Web
Make no mistake, the victim is a character in your story, not just a dead body.
In order for your sleuth to discover the villain, he must understand the victim. Your sleuth explores the victim’s world to find clues and suspects related to the victim’s death. Once the murder is discovered
– usually near the beginning of your mystery – your work as a storyteller is to reveal the victim’s character through the eyes of others and the clues.
As you develop the character background for your victim, know their relationship with all the suspects, but focus on the relationship with the villain. Create at least two and up to four secrets about the victim. Then reveal them through the story through physical clues and dialogue from other characters.
Some secrets may be red herrings that make another character look guilty and at least one will reveal the villain’s identity.
Throughout most of your mystery, the villain is one of several suspects. Create a rich background. You’ll give yourself a variety of puzzle pieces to drop into your story. Go beyond the villain as a character role. Give her a name, a background with relationships, a physical fallibility, and emotional weakness.
- Personal life not related to the victim
- Secrets they want to keep hidden
- Lies they tell to preserve the secrets
- Life related to the victim
In your background, focus on the relationship between the villain and the victim. Their relationship is the basis for the murder and the sleuth’s involvement. Think of ways the two connected, then the ways things went wrong, and finally the one incident that tipped the villain to murder.
- How did they get together?
- Was their relationship ever positive?
- What caused the turn?
Like any story research, you may use only 20% of the relationship you create. Experienced writers know that rich background allows for opportunities to use details as they are writing. Even, you, the writer, may not know which details you will use in your mystery until you are writing. That is why the deeper the relationship background you build between the villain and the victim, the more you have to use at the right moment in your story.
The Two Key Characters