It’s fair to say that Anthony Horowitz knows his way around a killer plotline. The bestselling author has not only captured readers with his mystery novels, Magpie Murders, Moonflower Murders and the Hawthorne mysteries, but taken on the mantle of his predecessors with two acclaimed Sherlock Holmes novels – The House of Silk and Moriarity – and three James Bond novels. So when he agreed to offer a masterclass in writing the perfect plot twist, we knew we were getting one of the best.
It’s definitely worth watching The Art of: The Murder Mystery in full to get the depth of Horowitz’s wisdom, as well as stories about how he wrote his fantastic novels. But here are five nuggety takeaways to keep by your writing table (perhaps, like Horowitz, you eschew the keyboard for a fountain pen?) in the midst of your murder mystery-writing.
1. Don’t underestimate the planning
Horowitz acknowledges that some writers like to sit down and let the story flow out, but he’s not one of them. “I often spend longer planning a book than I do writing it,” he says. “A good example is Magpie Murders, which took me something like 10 years to work out and then about two years to write, but it was a very, very complicated book and required an enormous amount of thinking.
"I put everything down on paper. I make copious pages and pages of notes until I am ready to write and by the time I do sit down at my desk, I have a sort of a map of where I'm going and everything is going to work.” Make sure, though, that you leave a little room to surprise yourself when you get to the page: “If I can't surprise myself, how can I surprise my reader?”
2. Start with a simple formula
Not sure how that plan should begin? There’s a Horowitz Hack for that: “Start with a simple formula,” he advises. “A plus B equals C. A equals one person, B is another person, C is the reason why A murders B. That's your bullseye. If that's original and interesting and surprising enough, then you can tell us who A and B are, and and that's your next ring.” Once you’ve got the basics, he explains, you can build out into the worlds your characters occupy, who knows them and how they know each other.”
3. People should be able to guess the twist
Want to know the secret of a killer plot twist? It should be obvious enough for people to potentially guess it – but surprising enough that they rarely actually do. One of the major influences on Horowitz’s work was Agatha Christie, an author who he says always surprises him but “you always feel you could have guessed because all the information has been down there in front of you. When I’m writing my book, I’m very influenced by that. When my publisher or my agent or anybody else reads one of my books, the first question I ask is not ‘Did you enjoy it?’ but, ‘Did you guess it?’ Because that, to me, is the crux of the matter. If they do guess it, I feel a sense of disappointment but at the same time, if they can't get it, then I haven't played fair. What I prefer to do is for them to say, 'No, I didn't get it, but I should have.' That's what I'm aiming for.”
4. Live inside your book
The best way to bring a story to life? Inhabit it. “There’s one piece of advice I would give to writers: don't stand on the edge of the book, looking over the edge of the chasm. Live inside the book looking around you,” Horowitz says. “What my characters see, I see. What they feel – the wind or the sunshine – I feel. If I'm inside the book, I'm not thinking about it as being something that you or anybody else will read. I am merely inside the world of the book – all that comes later.”
5. The only rule is originality
Looking for some hard-and-fast do’s and don’ts? Horowitz won’t divulge. “If you ask me what are the do’s and don’ts in writing a whodunnit or a murder mystery? Quite simply, there aren’t any. Never constrain yourself. It is by doing the don'ts and not doing the do’s that you will write the completely original book for you – and find success.”