How to Plot a Murder

My current project is a bit of work for hire creating a script for a murder mystery dinner theater event. I got the call last month from my friend Stephen (of Autumn Tree Productions, plug plug), who was also the gent who brought me onto the Connecticut Renaissance Faire writing staff back in 1996. His company was hired to produce the show and he tapped me for a script.

Murder mystery shows go together easily, so they’re great freelance projects — and anyone out there who might dismiss writing dinner theater shows, well, if your career is so far along that you can turn your nose up as such jobs, bully for you. Me, I need the work. Plus, they’re fun to write and allow me to stretch my writing muscles in some different directions (always a good thing, for any writer).

Out of necessity they need to be broad and a simple, since the idea is for the audience to follow the clues and solve the mystery themselves — something you can’t do with the vast majority of TV procedurals, since that last telling clue is always revealed right before the good guys swoop in to make the arrest and have the traditional infodump scene. A layered, complex story is not what’s needed here; get too twisty-turny and you lose the audience. Motivations and clues have to be fairly obvious, and each innocent suspect needs to have a clear alibi that rules them out as the killer.

Example: in the as-yet unproduced WWII-era A Star-Spangled Murder, set in a theater, the victim is killed when someone drops a sandbag from the rafters onto his head. Throughout the show, characters refer to the difficulties in navigating the rafters, and one of the suspects is constantly tripping over her own feet; she’s ruled out as a suspect because she’s too clumsy to successfully climb the rafters. In a more serious murder mystery, the clumsiness could turn out to be a ruse by the character to throw the detective off, but adding such layers to an audience-participation show is unnecessary and potentially frustrating for the audience. This is a game of Clue, not Agatha Christie.

And yes, if you’re wondering, it IS easier to decide who the killer is first and then work backwards to plant the clues and alibis.

This one will be a departure from past murder mysteries I’ve written (such as the aforementioned script and Murder Most Medieval) because of the more integrated audience participation element. Past scripts have always provided opportunities for the actors to bring the audience in on a limited basis, but the clients for this project (a spy-themed outing) wants certain guests to be part of the cast proper. The challenge here is the fact these guest-actors won’t be available for rehearsals.

My simple, if inelegant way around this is to give them few lines, and provide those lines to them on printed cue sheets that they will read from their seats. It might take the rest of the audience out of the setting a bit, but unless they take the time to learn their lines ahead of time and make themselves available for enough rehearsals to learn blocking (their positions and movements on the stage, for those not savvy with theatrical terminology), that’s the way it has to be.

Another new element I’m adding is a host character, someone who will act as the liaison between the characters and the audience. His job will be to introduce all the guests to the concept, explain how they can participate, and if necessary, act as a director-in-the-field to prompt the “guest stars” on their lines (though I’m hoping some extremely obvious cue lines will eliminate the possibility of missed cues and dropped lines).

Today I’ll work up the outline and see where Stephen wants to go with the plot and characters. Once it’s all done and the show has gone up, I’ll post a sample scene for everyone to check out.