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THE USUAL SUSPECTS: WHAT'S THEIR MOTIVE?

Every mystery is filled with the usual suspects to keep the reader guessing "whodunit" until the end. Have at least four characters in your novel who have possible motives to commit the crime. They will be hiding secrets, lying to your protagonist, and acting suspiciously throughout the book; they each may have a reason to want the victim dead. But only one is lying about being the killer. Your job as the author is to trick the reader into believing right up until the final disclosure--that any one of those suspects could be guilty. Here are some ways to do that:
  1. Motives - Your usual suspects should all have different plausible reasons to want to see the victim dead. For example, the wife who's having an affair and wants to cash in on the insurance money. (Sure, it's cliché, but as one of my favorite TV cops likes to say, "It's always the wife, it's always the wife...") Or, a long-lost illegitimate son who was rejected when he tried to reconnect with his father. Or, a business partner who was caught embezzling the company's funds. You get the picture--the possibilities are yours to create.
  2. Organize your clues - Write down those reasons and connect them to the victim in some sort of chart, or list, or whatever method works best for you. Now your suspects are lined up, including the one you know is guilty. You have at least four different ways the crime might have happened. That also gives you several different paths for your sleuth to follow, secrets to uncover, blind alleys to blunder into, then finally, to find her way to the real killer. It helps to really know your characters and their secrets. Write a bio of each suspect, why they want the victim dead, what they're lying about or hiding, so that you can plant clues about them along the way.
  3. Misdirection - Like a magician, a mystery writer uses misdirection and red herrings to lead the reader astray. Suspect #1 must have done it; then you're sure it was suspect #3; oh no, it can't be him, suspect #4 is the logical culprit, but then suddenly she's the next victim! And so it goes until the end. Agatha Christie was the best at keeping us guessing and she always came up with a new twist at the end.
  4. Lies - Have your characters lie: to your sleuth, to the police, to each other. All your suspects have their secrets, so they all have their reasons to lie. It makes them real, too. We all keep secrets, we all lie sometimes, but often small things can be misinterpreted. Everyone is lying, but only one is lying about being a murderer.
  5. Dialogue - Use dialogue to show motive. As characters speak, they reveal their true personalities. The action tags and movements show the characters' emotions as they carry on a conversation, and how they react to the other people. All these things can give the reader subtle hints and clues about each character.
Always remember - each one of your "usual suspects" should have a solid motive so that the reader can believe, right up to the end, any one of them could be the killer!

Coming soon - PART FOUR: BUILDING SUSPENSE


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From I learned from the movie "The Usual Suspects" the obvious suspect is not the one. Look for the Keyzer Soze of the bunch and start from there. The one who shows obvious signs of not being incapable of committing a crime might not be the true culprit most of the time. How many murders have been committed by a husband or wife against their spouse? Police detectives will go through the usual suspects like robbers, a colleague who has a grudge, etc. But there are many cases where the mastermind turned out to be the closest person to the victim - the husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend.


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