Posted by: nancycurteman | December 16, 2010

Alibis and Motives Make or Break a Mystery Novel

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Killer IdeasAn author’s choice of alibis and motives can make or break a mystery novel because the story revolves around answering two basic questions related to these elements. First: Why would a character want to murder the victim? This is motive. Second: What is the reason a character could not have murdered the victim?  This is alibi.

In a murder mystery, each core character should have a reasonable motive for wanting the victim dead followed by an equally strong alibi that makes it seem impossible for him to have committed the crime. In fact, the goal of the murderer is to hide his motive and create a strong alibi. This dilemma creates the need for the sleuth to search out clues that either substantiate character alibis or shatter them.

Motives and alibis enable the mystery writer to create all kinds of flimsy, false or ridiculous alibis that may or may not prove true, enabling the reader to exercise her deductive talents along with the sleuth. Misleading motives provide the opportunity to create red herrings that lead the reader on a wild goose chase. Sometimes the character with the strongest motive and the flimsiest alibi is actually innocent while a character with a solid alibi and no apparent motive is the culprit.

Alibis and motives are the confusing puzzle pieces that form the foundation of the mystery novel.

Other related writing tips:

7 Murder Weapons That Will Challenge The Cleverest Sleuth
How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a Mystery Novel?
How Important is Conflict in a Mystery Story?
Developing Characters is No Mystery
How to Write “Killer” Scenes in a Mystery Novel

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Responses

  1. Have I told you lately how much I like this Mystery series? 🙂

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  2. […] An author’s choice of alibis and motives can make or break a mystery novel because the story revolves around answering two basic questions related to these elements. First: Why would a character want to murder the victim? This is motive. Second: What is the reason a character could not have murdered the victim?  This is alibi. In a murder mystery, each core character should have a reasonable motive for wanting the victim dead followed by an equal … Read More […]

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  3. All novels require plotting, of course. But I’m just starting to realize how important it is to understand characters and their motivations before writing. With mystery novels it’s even more vital, I guess, because plot turns can hinge on the “whys” and “why nots.”

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    • Exactly. Motivation is the prime mover. Your writing pieces always present excellent interpretations of character goals and thought processes driving their actions.

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  4. This is very true and I see it as I look back at the many mysteries I’ve read. I generally suspect two or three characters, and usually, it is none of them, but rather someone whose motive isn’t clear until after the culprit is exposed. I like surprise endings as long as they make sense. A real surprise ending comes when a character the reader trusts and likes turns out to have a hidden agenda (motive) that drives him/her to murder. I have to confess that while this is a real surprise and makes sense, it is disappointing. As a reader, I hate liking a character that turns out to be the killer.

    Thank you for articulating these two characteristics of a mystery novel.

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    • It gives me pause for thought when you say you hate liking a character that turns out to be the killer, because this happens in one of my novels. I guess the key is to be careful not to make the helpful character too likable.

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      • I wasn’t disappointed in the novel. I dig deeply into a character when I read. I guess this is not a good thing to do. I weep at movies, some that no one else finds sad enough for tears. When a character I like disappoints me, it’s like losing a friend. I’m sure your novel is not hurt by this turn of events in the plot.

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  5. Thanks for clarifying.

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  6. So, Miss Marple… erm, Miss Nancy… when are you going to make this into an eBook? This is good stuff!

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  7. Another great post. Although the subject matter was specifically about mystery novels I think you can take this advice and apply it to any genre to make a more interesting and complex story.

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    • I agree. I chose to relate it to mysteries because that is the genre I write in and blog about. Nice to hear from you. I visited your site but could not find where to make comments.

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      • Thanks for visiting our site. We have had to change our “look” in order to utilize the tools and links better, we now are able to recieve comments as well. I have put your blog on our blogroll as we have found your posts very helpful in our writing. We all look forward to new posts!
        Thanks,
        Emily

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  8. […] Alibis and Motives Can Make or Break a Mystery Novel […]

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  9. Thank you so much for this advice. I’m in the 7th grade and I am writing a narrative essay for my teacher. I was having serious writers block and this helped me so much!!!!! THANK YOU!!!!

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    • You are very welcome. I hope you enjoy writing. If so, I would encourage you to keep at it. Young writers have a lot to offer.

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