The Writer’s Bag of Tricks


We’ve been discussing genre fiction for the last several weeks with a focus on crime fiction. This week we focus on a subgenre of crime fiction called the Whodunnit.

A Whodunnit is closely related to the private eye novel, which we discussed last week. Also called a murder mystery, the Whodunnit is primarily focused on the puzzle of the murder rather than the characters involved with the murder. Whodunnits tend to be plot driven stories rather than character driven stories.


The basic Whodunnit plot usually goes like this:

  • There is a murder
  • There is a short list of suspects, each with motive and opportunity to commit the murder.
  • The detective (either amateur or professional) comes in to investigate the murder and with the help of clues and a strong power of deduction, discovers the real perpetrator.

General Story Structure

The soon-to-be-dead character is introduced while in conflict with other characters. At some point, written so that the reader can’t see who committed the murder, but can see the murder and some of the clues, someone knocks the old bugger on the head and kills him (or her, or shoots them, stabs them, poisons them…you get the picture). The newly-dead character is discovered and sets the investigation in motion.

The murder investigation unfolds according to the logic of the detective who generally follows crime procedures. The characters who appeared earlier in conflict with the corpse (previously, the soon-to-be-dead character), are seen in a new light, with motive and opportunity to commit the murder, and these characters are reintroduced as suspects. The detective identifies the story problems, but doesn’t solve any problems. Suspects hold back information, which the reader knows but the detective doesn’t.

There is a second murder (usually the same perpetrator committs both crimes). The second corpse is usually the prime suspect identified by the detective earlier in the story. This second corpse represents a setback for the detective because they failed to solve the earlier crime and now have two bodies to deal with. The detective then begins to use insight into the crimes rather than procedures. More clues are discovered. The detective begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, which sets events in motion and raises the stakes for all the characters. The detective forms and discards multiple theories of who committed the murders, and why. Then the detective forms the correct theory and identities the killer, but the detective can’t prove it yet.

The detective and the killer clash in some sort of final battle (wits or physical), and the detective has a close brush with death. At the last second, the detective succeeds in thwarting the killer, reveals the murderer, and proves both motive and opportunity.

The Whodunnit ends with the characters moving on with their lives.

Next week: More on crime fiction.


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