6-7 Minute Read
In the very first year that I taught creative writing, I had a class fall on Halloween. Students dutifully attended, delaying whatever party plans they may have had, and we ended up having a really great time. I like to think at least part of the fun was the warm up activity we started the evening with, which explores the genre of the murder mystery.
First things first: if you’ve never played the board game Clue, the title of this chapter isn’t going to make a great deal of sense to you.
Fortunately, as I discovered that Halloween evening a few years ago, foreknowledge of the game, or the movie of the same name, which I’m sure hasn’t aged well, isn’t necessary in order to enjoy this writing activity.
Here’s what you’ll need for this activity:
- Three bags (or hats, or toques, or anything you can draw cue cards from)
- At least four cue cards for each member of your class
- A quirky, morbid imagination
- A mood to socialize, or at least the ability to pretend convincingly that you’re in the mood to socialize (look, you’re doing it! Well done).
Let’s start by coming up with two characters. Give them each a full name, an address, and an occupation. Pick out a cue card for each character and write those details down.
Now, let’s think about what that character had originally wanted to be when they grew up. Maybe they had imagined themselves studying butterflies for a living, and then they ended up becoming an economist. That may sound like a stretch, but keep in mind that people are strange. And often full of surprises. There’s no reason your characters can’t be as well.
Finally, let’s think about what the character wants to do when they retire. Do they aspire to becoming a full-time gardener? A chef? Fly airplanes? Give your imagination some space to roam here. (And yes: I know that retirement is, sadly, more and more a fiction in our world. Our failing social net is scarier than any Hollywood horror movie).
Now that we have our characters, we need a setting for the action to unfold.
In choosing a setting, try not to settle for something predictable or generic. We all know what street corners or dark alleyways look like, but as aspiring writers, we need to challenge ourselves to be more specific. Otherwise, there’s little to distinguish our writing from everyone else’s.
Instead, opt for the broom closet at an abandoned curling rink, for example, or the luggage pickup at a small town airport. Details like these are great because they add intrigue, but they also help shape the direction of your story.
Finally, we need is an object of interest. (You’ve likely pieced this together already, but because we’re setting the stage for a murder mystery, this object will eventually play a starring role in a particularly ill deed).
We should perhaps pause here and stress that this is meant to be an especially farcical activity. If you’re not interested in the genre of the murder mystery, which is altogether understandable, and for many good reasons, we you can just as easily eliminate the violence from this activity altogether and turn it into a game of escape (see more on that below).
Regardless of what you choose, we still need a compelling object. And, again, let’s look past conventional choices: pogo sticks, diaper bags, and lawnmowers are all good choices.
Divide the class into groups of three. You can just as easily do this on your own, but creative writing exercises are almost always more fun with company.
Gather up all the cue cards and organize them into three stacks: characters, settings, and objects of interest. Place these stacks into three different bags (or hats, or toques). Invite groups to draw one setting (from the setting bag), one object (from the object bag), and then two characters (from–you guessed it–the character bag).
Each group should now have almost everything it needs in order to craft the basis of a murder mystery. All that’s missing, of course, is motive.
Work with your classmates to come up with a plausible–or completely implausible–reason why one of these characters has offed the other. Take their jobs and their aspirations into account when crafting these motives. In essence, you need to imagine the nature of their relationship, what led to this ill fate, and how it actually played out.
One Last Thing
Murder mysteries aren’t for everyone. If you’re looking for an alternative that’s free of violence, imagine instead that your two characters are trapped somewhere, and that they only have their object of interest to help them escape. They could, for example, find themselves locked in an elementary school classroom with only a brass orrery to help them break out. Who are they? How did they get there? And what secrets might those celestial bodies hold? See if you can puzzle that one out.
Hopefully, this activity gave you something fun to do with your class on a late fall evening. If there’s anything worth taking away from it, I wonder if it’s worth noting just how much work can tell us about a character. When we know what someone does for a living, we immediately form a picture of what that person’s daily rituals are like. When readers meet a character at work, they start to form a picture, rightly or not, of how they ended up there, which is something we can either work with, or push against, as writers.
All this to say that our working lives provide each of us with this rich repository for our writing. If ever you’re not sure what to write about, try writing about work. You may be surprised by how easily people can relate to it, and how strongly they respond.