Can You Pick Your Killer Out of a Lineup?

Writing mysteries can be fun and challenging, but it can also prove to be frustrating – unless you decide to have some fun with it. I’ll be honest – in most of my writing I have been a plotster, planning out every clue and detail and knowing full well who my killer is well before I’ve typed out the opening line. Recently one of the discussions in a writing group I belong to asked the question: do you know who your killer is when you start your book?

Hello? What was that? Of course I do…..doesn’t everyone? I quickly learned that, no, many writers don’t and that helps spring a surprise ending on the reader. Or, better yet, know who your killer is and then switch it to someone else at the last minute. Sure, you may have to go back and move clues around or find new ways to justify the various locations of where your characters were at certain points in the story but, I’ve tried it and I have to tell you, it’s quite entertaining. In the latest manuscript that I am working on I’ve done it at least once so far – yep – changed my bad guy killer. And guess what? In my mind (though I’ve yet to type it into my computer) I’ve changed him (or her) again. Maybe when the entire work is finished it will be someone that I didn’t even suspect. And that’s what keeps it fresh and exciting – to me and the reader.

An author that I know surprised me so much with the reveal of the murderer in her book that I nearly dropped the book when I read who did it. Seriously. Almost dropped the book. There were two reveals to me that day. The first was the identity of the murderer. The second was that, as a writer, I was boring and predictable, so of course my killers were probably obvious to readers. No matter how many suspects I threw in my readers probably didn’t need a photo lineup.

So I tried the whole switch-your-killer-at-the-end-of-your-book thing. And I fell in love with a whole new perspective on writing mysteries. If you’re like me you try not to listen to the crowd leaving the theater as you are entering in case they drop spoilers. I’m cautious to read movie reviews in case they explain too much. I want the shock value of the surprise ending. I don’t want to know that hand is going to come up from the grave and grab the sweet girl. Or that Bruce Willis was really dead all along. Sorry if you didn’t know about those two.

Write your mystery as if you are really trying to solve the crime, rather than providing a crime for others to solve. Your favorite character may be tricky enough to fool you and cause you to drop your own book when he reveals himself to you at the end. He looks familiar—can number five please step forward?

Loni Emmert is the co-author of BUTTON HOLLOW CHRONICLES #1: THE LEAF PEEPER MURDERS available August 2010 from Mainly Murder Press. She is a member of SinC, RWA and writes articles on writing, reading and other related topics. (


  1. says

    I have to agree with writing as if you are trying to solve the mystery yourself. It is amazing when one of your characters twists not only your readers but yourself as well!