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Elements of Mystery Writing: Violence and Murder
Elements of Mystery Writing: Violence and Murder
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Violence and murder are staple themes of the mystery novel, but how do you strike the balance between an intriguing crime and gratuitous material? This article looks at how a writer can avoid isolating the reader by taking things too far. Getting this right can make your piece of writing accessible to a wider audience and bypasses any sensationalism that could cheapen your work. This article focuses on writing exercises that will enable you to make the most of your ability and identify what works and what doesn't when it comes to writing about violence.

Writing Conflict

Every work of fiction must have some form of conflict, and violence is the most overt portrayal of conflict. This does not mean this should be the only form of conflict your story explores. There must be internal conflict in the form differences of opinion, motivation, and personalities. All the opposing elements within the story create varying degrees of conflict between characters, and between themes and ideas. This is not to say that every piece of writing must contain violence, and while it is likely, it is not essential to have violence -- even in a mystery story.

Writing Violence

Violence is nothing new; even the oldest of fairy tales and nursery rhymes are extremely violent, when you think about them properly. What does make violence in modern literature seem new is the way it is described. Often realism is more shocking than the fantastical. Follow these pointers to help your description of violence avoid becoming clichéd or sensationalistic. Of course, if clichéd or sensationalistic violence is part of the way you need to tell your story, then go for it. Again, remember there are no hard and fast rules. The majority of writers want to stay away from typical violence or over-the-top graphic scenes, unless they are intentionally extreme to serve an ironic or satirical purpose.


Focus on details that makes it real, not every graphic physical detail. Instead of telling the reader exactly how the blunt instrument comes into contact with the victim's head, focus on a small detail, a noise for example, that will enable the reader to picture it for themselves, this will be more effective and won't put off any reader who is squeamish about the exactness of detail.


Make sure your weapon suits your criminal. It sounds like random advice, but characters who commit crimes that don't seem viable frustrate readers. A housewife if more likely to have access to a frying pan than a gun; a hardened criminal will have more access to poison or explosives than a mild-mannered traffic warden. Think about the likelihood of your characters having access to the weapon of choice and use this to your advantage. You can even challenge the preconceptions of your reader by revealing the secret life of that mild-mannered traffic warden and his obsession with amateur chemistry experiments!

Reading Exercise

Read the following two paragraphs, which describe the same scene in very different ways. Then answer the questions that follow them.

Paragraph 1

He lifted his hand and struck her across her cheek. Immediately a red patch spread across her skin. Her eyes were wide and she looked slowly down to the metal bar in his hand.

"Don't… please." Her voice was quiet and small, resigned.

"Shh…," he smiled.

He raised his arm above her and she turned frantically to run, slipping out of her shoes and falling hard onto the stone tiles. Instinctively, she grabbed the knee she had banged, and never saw the bar slicing through the air towards her.

Paragraph 2

He cornered her; the metal bar he swung in his left hand was raised above her head. She tried to protest but her screams were soon silenced as he struck her again and again, feeling the vibrations of the bar striking her skull in his hands. She crumpled to the hard floor, her arm bent behind her, crunching as her weight landed on it. Still he continued to hit her until blood ran over the stone tiles. She was unrecognizable.


Two very different ways of describing the same scene, but which captures your imagination? There is no right or wrong answer here, every person is different, some like the violence to be implied like in the first paragraph while others like to have the detail spelled out like in the second. Answer the following questions to decide which style best suits your writing…

1. Choose a sentence from either paragraph that you find most effective, a line that communicates to you the fear and menace of the scene. This will help you to recognize the type of writing you feel is effective, and this should influence your own style.

2. Which paragraph do you feel was most violent? You may naturally assume the second was the more overtly violent of the two, but perhaps the first paragraph suggested worse violence than was actually described in the second? Sometimes implied violence is best because it matches the level of violence the reader is comfortable with. Someone who is squeamish won't be put off, while someone else who is very comfortable with descriptions of violence will fill in the blanks for themselves, often more violently than the writer intends. With this in mind, what way would be appropriate for your mystery?

Mysterious Elements: Suspense

Suspense is how a writer keeps the reader reading their mystery. To achieve that un-put-downable effect, it is essential that you get the pace of the story just right, so the reader is kept involved and interested. Too slow and they will lose interest, too fast and they will be left behind. Get the speed right and the suspense will follow; you want your reader to be unable to put your story down -- they should be hungry for more!

Clever Tips for Creating Suspense

Tangle Things Up!

Don't give too much away – make your reader wait! If you pose a conundrum or set a trap for the reader to fall into, let them flounder for a while. Don't rescue them too quickly; move on and continue with the story or a subplot before revealing the truth. Your subplots, red herrings and plot twists should be tangled up together. If you present the reader with a problem and then solve it before posing another, the mystery piece will present like a list. The response of a reader to this type of story will be either to lose interest, or to put your story down and wander off after each problem is solved. This isn't the response you want! So tangle and leave your reader wondering just enough to keep them reading and searching for solutions.

Characters That Intrigue

By writing your characters cleverly, you can keep your reader interested. Give some, or all, of your characters a personal life the reader can relate to. Giving them a life outside of the mystery allows you to switch over to the character, show their real life, and then return to the mystery. Keeping all these balls in the air, juggling storylines that interweave and complement each other keeps the piece suspenseful and intriguing -- as well as realistic, so the reader never tires of getting to know the characters you have created.


Without your plot having a sense of logic, any sense of suspense will be lost on your very confused, frustrated reader. Don't overcomplicate things. If your story confuses you, then it will confuse your reader. If you find yourself getting kind of lost, then it is time to simplify things!

Building Suspense

The main point to take away from this section is that it is crucial to build your suspense. Don't just spring events on your readers. They have to have a feeling that something is going to happen. Look at the following reading exercise for an example of how this works.

Reading Exercise

Read the following two paragraphs and evaluate how you think a reader would feel reading them. Each paragraph could be substituted for the other -- they both fit in with the wider story. Think about which paragraph might make the reader feel like this is a good point to set the book aside and make a cup of coffee, and which paragraph will keep the reader reading to the end.

Paragraph 1

I decided to take a walk to clear my head. It was cold outside, I could already see the frost sparkling on the tops of the cars from my window. The street was empty but for a skinny black cat crossing the road. I tried to remember whether that was bad luck or good luck, when all of a sudden it turned and ran off. I wrapped myself up in a thick coat and left the apartment block. I decided to head toward the docks and hurried along, my breath leaving a trail behind me in the cold air. I heard a cough and turned my head to see who was behind me. No one was there. I got faster and listened for footsteps, but the only sound was my own boots on the hard ground and my heavy breath. Suddenly a figure caught my eye across the road. I ran.

Paragraph 2

I decided to take a walk to clear my head. It was cold outside and the frost was sparkling on the cars. I wrapped up warm and stepped out of the apartment block into the freezing air. I decided to head along the main road to the docks and pulled my overcoat tight around me to ward off the breeze. Hurrying along, I thought over the events of the past few days and tried to sort out the evidence in my mind. Suddenly a figure caught my eye across the road. I ran.


Ask yourself the following questions about the paragraphs and how you felt reading them.

1. Which paragraph was more suspenseful?

Paragraph 1 was written to be more suspenseful than Paragraph 2.

2. Why? What were the elements that increased the level of suspense in the first paragraph?

The first paragraph employed a range of techniques to heighten the sense of suspense. First, the black cat seen from the window is an eerie element. Think of what black cats represent – luck, both good and bad and the whole association with witches make the black cat a potent symbol. The hurried walk, the cough and the panic rising in the character made the reader sure that something was going to happen. By raising the alert with that cough, the reader's attention is caught. In the second paragraph, the character runs, but the reason is unclear. We are not left feeling that the figure across the road is a threat – perhaps he just wants to run? In the first paragraph we feel strongly that the character is under some kind of threat.

3. How does the structure of the paragraph help create more tension and suspense?

Shorter sentences as the suspense increases help to heighten tension. The character's thoughts are brief and to the point; he is hurried and panicking. By writing in short, snappy sentences the write mirrors the character's pace.
Let Someone Read It

The best way to gauge if your mystery is likely to produce excitement or yawns is to let someone read it. You need them to return a verdict of "unable to put it down." Make sure the person is honest and not likely to give you an answer just to please you.

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