do and don't · how to break the rules well · writing problems

Opening scenes: murder

Starting with a murder is common in the thriller/mystery/suspense genres. The kill kicks off the plot. The scene might lead the reader astray with red herrings. It might agonize us because we know things the detectives don’t.

Just because it works doesn’t mean you should start with the murder.

The murder opening isn’t just a format: it’s there for a reason. It shows us something vital about the victim or antagonist we wouldn’t learn elsewhere. It may fill us with sympathy for the victim and horror at the murderer. It prepares us for the tension and angst ahead.

(Maybe we sympathize with the murderer, not the victim. Plots that make us want or like something we know we shouldn’t are some of the best.)

If your opening murder scene doesn’t do any of this, don’t include it.

I read lots of murder openings where I don’t care one whit about the victim. There’s no essential info about the murderer: they’re a typical, creepy antagonist. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s nothing to show off.

The only thing the scene conveys is blood and guts. The writer wants to titillate the violence-voyeur in the reader.

But this isn’t a horror novel, and it sets the wrong tone. Thrillers should be thrilling. They’re often horrific and terrifying, but not without purpose. They scare us, but that’s not the main point like it is in horror.

If violence is the scene’s only purpose, I’m bored. Give me some tense plot-meat to rip into.

I grant you: I only get to see the first 10 pages of these manuscripts. These scenes may indeed leave important clues for later on. Plus, this is a genre style. Good books often follow the old forms.

Still, it shouldn’t bore me. Make your psychopath interesting. One-dimensional antagonists are no fun for the writer or the reader.

Or, write a character who you love and whose story you want to tell. Write a save-the-cat moment. Make them likeable, relatable, and real. Then make them the victim. Because if you love them that much and hate killing them, I’ll feel the same.

Empathetic connection; unanswered questions; and high stakes. These are what make us read.

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