So, this week’s topic is going to be super fun. Why? Because this week I’m talking about how to write believable crime and murder scenes…not that I’d know or anything (I’m not going to mention that body under the floor boards because it’s not there…that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). In writing violence and murder, it might help to look at it from the perspective of film which, by nature, is highly visual. American films are full of violence; in fact, the anticipation of death is probably one of the reasons that people go to the movies. There’s a visceral, perverse thrill in seeing someone killed in front of your eyes, and that feeling is harder to create in writing than it is on the screen. It’s difficult to replicate the speed of a gunshot or the blind, chaotic feeling of participating in a fight. Some writers try to copy the techniques of film: a lot of choreography (punches, kicks, and ricocheting bullets). But the best writers use techniques that are only available in written fiction to create powerful scenes of violence.
So how do you incorporate all of this in your story? Let’s take a look at my top ten tips on writing believable crime stories. But, before I continue, let me make one thing perfectly clear…I am in no way promoting or condoning murder or violence. I am a writer and this information is meant to be used ONLY in the world of make believe. So, please don’t email me that you’re somehow offended by what you are about to read…you’ve been warned. Understood? Good. Now, let’s get to the good stuff.
Understand the mechanism of death
Every human dies because the central nervous system gets unplugged. This happens in many ways, but primarily either the cardiopulmonary system stops, which tells the brain to shut down, or the brain stops, which tells the heart and lungs to give up.
In reality, this is harder to accomplish than it sounds, and it’s human nature not to check out without a fight. So people are actually hard to kill. A bullet to the head is effective, but stabbings, for instance, are time-consuming, difficult, and messy. Poisons are slow, strangling is tough, and folks just don’t stand there while being axed. So, when you write the “perfect murder scene,” think about how realistically you kill your victim.
Understand scene access
Crime scenes are tightly secured. Absolutely no one goes in unless they’re necessary, and then they’ll wear complete personal protective equipment to avoid contaminating the scene or themselves. This business of a gumshoe detective in a trench coat, smoking a cigar and leaning over the body, doesn’t happen. Neither does a fifteen-year-old sleuth tagging along to help solve the case.
Focus on the senses
Focusing on all five senses leads to you drawing a most specific mental image for your readers. Tell them how ribs are cracking and the body hits the ground with a thump. Describe how the victim’s eyes glaze over and their skin turns pale; how the murderer might feel said skin under their fingertips or how the murder weapon rests securely in their grip. Where is this happening? Consider the atmosphere and the surroundings, as well as how they could affect the murder.
Murders are (most likely) human as well
Here we go back to how killing someone isn’t easy. While it would already be hard enough to strangle someone to death without any experience or knowing just how deep to cut when slitting someone’s throat… You also have to think that this person might fight back. They are likely to defend themselves, kick and scream… Maybe even scratch their murderer. This would have an effect on the person, causing them pain or maybe making them angry… Know that even the bad guy, even if they succeed in their actions, can be harmed in the process.
Understand time of death
I’ve read (and seen on the screen) moments in which the coroner/pathologist declares the victim dead at a specific time, such as 10:05 pm. Uh . . . no—not unless someone was there with a stopwatch. Many mortis factors are considered when estimating time of death. Temperature is the biggie, followed by body mass.
A dead body will naturally adjust temperature to achieve equilibrium with its surroundings and will display time-telling factors, such as muscle stiffening, blood settling, color, and tissue breakdown. The presence of toxins also effects body changes. For example, I’ve read that cocaine amplifies the mortis process, while carbon monoxide retards it. Be careful in getting your forensic guru to commit on specific time. Google is your best friend on this one!
Create the physical, verbal, and thematic clues for your reader
Clues basically fall into 3 categories: physical clues, verbal clues, and thematic clues. Physical clues are things like blood droplets, DNA analysis, and footprints. Verbal clues are the things that are said between characters, while thematic clues are things like an ominous setting when the killer appears or dressing the villain in black.
You can use clues in 2 ways. Immediate clues are things like the killer dropping a piece of jewelry on the way out, which may or may not be noticed by the reader. A future clue is something like DNA analysis, which the reader can't learn about until the detective does. There's also a difference in the level of subtlety. Some clues are very obvious, such as a gun left at the scene. Others are subtler, such as the victim wearing purple, which turns out to help solve the crime. You don't need to write all of your clues ahead of time, but you should decide on some key points so you can work them in throughout your novel. You don't want to shove them all into a single scene.
Make the murderer believable
The person you finally choose to be your culprit should be capable of the crime on every level. They must be physically able to do it, as well as emotionally. If they're not, your readers are going to feel cheated. For instance, a feeble older man is not likely capable of picking up a body and dumping it off a bridge, not matter how much adrenaline is pumping through his system.
Set up your victim or victims
You can open the story with the victim already dead, and unspool the details of their life throughout the story. Alternatively, you can introduce the victim in the story as a character, and then move on to the murder. When creating your victim, consider how you want them to contribute to the story. For instance, a likeable victim will immediately set the reader against the killer. However, if the victim was a despicable person, the reader may hold out judgment on the killer. Create a backstory for the victim to help readers care about them. Introduce it slowly through the story. You can even use one of your potential suspects as a victim later on in the story if the murderer kills again.
Work on realism in your murder scene
Put some thought into how someone gets rid of a body. A body is hard to move, plus it's pretty conspicuous. It's also going to leave blood and/or traces of DNA behind, and it will start to smell. Digging a hole takes time, and dumping a body in water could mean it washes back up on shore, for instance.
Location, Location, Location
While the breakdown of a corpse has a general time frame that you can abide by when describing the body in your story, the environment in which a dead body is found will drastically affect the rate of decay and appearance of the corpse. For example, I read a book that featured a young girl who died of strangulation and was then left to freeze in a harsh Arctic climate. The timing and extent of the changes to her body after death would have been much different if she was dumped in the scorching desert, buried in a shallow grave, or chained to a cinderblock and tossed in a lake. Also, remember that body mass alone can effect the rate of decomposition. Even the clothing worn can be a factor, so make sure you figure out your victim’s circumstances before you start researching.
Ultimately, the basic three things a writer should determine before researching are the location of the body, the time elapsed since the heart stopped and the cause of death. Once you have these facts nailed down, you can really focus your research for your manuscript. The internet is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to forensics, but be careful where you get your information. You’ll find conflicting and downright wrong answers at every turn. Government and university websites are generally the most reliable, as well as blogs maintained by forensic experts. Image searches online can provide dozens of examples of lividity marks, decomposition stages and various poses of rigor mortis for you to describe in your work. Just don't eat while you surf through them. Well, that’s it for this week! If you like what you’ve read be sure to subscribe to my blog and check me out on my Facebook Page, Twitter @d_vanalst, and Instagram @dvanalstwriter. Also, check out my current books available on my Amazon page! Until next time, happy writing!