Sunday, May 11, 2014
How to Write a Murder Mystery Party Game, Part I
Have you ever attended a murder mystery party? If you ever get a chance to, they are great fun! (Well, if you like that sort of thing, which I do. Think of it as a large-scale game of "let's pretend!")
In brief, a murder mystery party assigns each of the party guests a role to play. In the story, a murder has occurred (or sometimes occurs during the course of the event), and several or all of the guests have some motive for wanting to kill the victim. If you think of the game of Clue, or of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, you've got the idea: one victim, one crime, several suspects with motives. Guests act out their roles and, throughout the party, drop preassigned hints and clues concerning their portion of the story, until someone finally figures out "whodunnit."
I've participated in four murder mysteries over the years, with varying degrees of success. Now I've been given a unique opportunity. The local history museum where I volunteer is planning to host a homegrown murder mystery in the fall as a fundraiser, and I've been asked to help write it. So I've decided to take you along for the ride, in case you ever want to do such a thing yourself.
Here are the first steps in planning a murder mystery party:
1) SETTING/TIME PERIOD: Choose a theme/era/locale. Mysteries I've participated in have been set in a modern-day ski lodge, a ranch, and an ancient palace. You might choose a particular era, such as the Roaring Twenties or Victorian era. Does venue of your party suggest a theme, such as a historic home, school, or a mid-century-modern 1950s suburban home? Like most parties, your theme not only determines your story, but also things like the decorations, food, and invitations. (Hint: If you're the writer of the mystery, ask someone else to take on these other tasks. You already have enough on your plate!)
2) GUEST LIST: Once your theme is chosen, consider your guests. The responsibilities of the guests are to pretend to be the character they've been assigned (costume, mannerisms, accent, or whatever) and to circulate and drop the clues they've been assigned to drop. They will NOT have to learn a script, but should be comfortable at ad-libbing and making things up on the spot. Think through which of your guests are likely to get into the spirit of the game and assign them larger roles. Smaller parts or "spectator" roles can be assigned to shyer or more reluctant guests. When you know who is likely to participate, start planning your mystery.
3) CHARACTERS: You will not be writing an actual script, but scenarios for your characters to follow. Each guest will be given a synopsis of the character they will play, the reason their character is present at the party, and their relationship to the murder victim and other guests. For example, when I was invited to the ski lodge mystery, all the characters were at the lodge for a skiing vacation. I was assigned the role of a single woman who had a troubled romantic history with the deceased. I was given a paragraph or two of information about clues I needed to drop during the evening that would help solve the crime, but otherwise I was on my own to play my character however I saw fit. For our local-history mystery (hey, that rhymes!), the setting will be a house party in the 1920s, and each of the fund-raiser guests is a guests or host of the house party. You'll probably need to adjust your cast of characters as you go along (and find out who is available to attend), but at least sketch out a rough plan.
4) CRIME: Decide on the circumstances of your crime. Who is the victim? What is the murder weapon? For our history mystery, although most of the characters are actual historical figures, we decided we did not want to use a real-life crime or real-life person as either the victim or the murderer, so we fictionalized those roles. Also, in our story we chose to have the murder take place before our party begins, although sometimes the victim dies during the event, by being poisoned at dinner or whatever. (This scenario has the disadvantage of the victim needing to disappear for the rest of the evening and miss some of the fun.)
5) MOTIVES: Now think through each of your suspect characters and give each of them a motive for killing the victim--a broken romance, a business deal gone bad, a deep-seated resentment of some sort--to keep everyone guessing about whom the murderer might be.
At this point you should have the basics covered: your setting/time period, your crime, and your suspects and their motives. I'll continue with the plan in my next post. Meanwhile, feel free to ask questions in the comments.
Do you have any ideas about a murder mystery you'd like to write? Any questions about the process so far?