Updated: Apr 24
Add one dead body, sprinkle liberally with red herrings and place in a pressure cooker until the criminal's goose is cooked. If only, crafting the perfect murder was that easy. We all want to give our readers the best possible experience and sell a ton of copies in the process. But what is the secret sauce of success? Why do some authors like Agatha Christie and Anthony Horowitz climb to the pinnacle of publishing glory, while others never get off the ground? I say, it can be attributed to the right mix of ingredients. One of which, is the MacGuffin.
What is a MacGuffin, you might ask? Isn't that when you put a duck inside a turkey on Thanksgiving? Well, no. Not unless your killer committed the ultimate crime in order to get a prize winning turducken. A MacGuffin is essentially what the murderer wants. It's the driving force behind his bad guy behavior. Typical MacGuffins of the crime genre are money, revenge and keeping something a secret.
If you really want to succeed at writing a great mystery, dig deep into the psyche of your criminal and examine what makes him tick. Why has he done the deed? Or she? Don't think I'd leave female murderers out of the mix. The more compelling your villain's reason, the stronger your story will be. If you can get your reader to understand and almost sympathize with the criminal, all the better. In Agatha Christie's Three Blind Mice, the killer wants revenge for the death of his younger brother at the hands of their caretakers. That's a compelling reason to want someone dead. If the reason your criminal pulled the trigger on a life of crime isn't compelling enough to make you relate to it on some level, then your reader won't either.
Use the MacGuffin to innovate.
Agatha Christie uses the MacGuffin to great effect in And Then There Were None (Spoiler Alert!)
This particular novel holds a special place in my heart. It is the first Agatha Christie novel I ever read. It is the one that got me hooked on murder mysteries. Thank you Dame Agatha! In this novel, ten strangers are drawn to an island by letters employing various tactics to get them there. It is announced early in the book that each person present is responsible for a suspicious death. All deaths that can not be proven as murder or prosecuted in a court of law. What is the MacGuffin? Drum roll please....Justice.
Wait, you may be saying. Isn't that what the sleuth wants? That is what makes it so brilliant. Agatha turned things on their head by making justice the villain's MacGuffin. For those of you who have read this book, you will recall that there isn't a true sleuth. Not having a detective or amateur sleuth would normally be a great oversight but Agatha pulled it off because she made the villain's MacGuffin justice. At their core, crime novels are always about justice.
In Conclusion, try to really get into the mind of your master criminal. The more you can sympathize and understand what he wants, the better your story will be. And if you can find a really unique MacGuffin, you might just be able to innovate in a way that makes your story stand out above the rest.
If you would like to learn more about MacGuffins, check out The Story Grid Podcast with Tim Grahl and Shawn Coyne. Shawn is a professional editor with over twenty-five years of experience with big 5 publishers. Follow him as he walks Tim, a guy on a quest to write a book that works, through the process of writing a novel. It is definitely worth the time.