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I'm writing a short story following the first person perspective of the MC, who is a young, male writer of horror stories. He goes on a cruise with his girlfriend and their friends, and, unsurprisingly, the MC is a murderer, who proceeds to kill off everyone (5~6 total) on the boat one by one (as well as cannibalizing them), leaving his girlfriend for last, when he confronts her about having been the murderer and explains his motivation, which is this:

"Truth be told, the primary inspiration of my writing came from my dreams--my nightmares, more specifically, and to my despair, I had, of late lost my fear of just about anything...I found out that I can make the nightmares come back, if I did something just as hideous when awake."

The problem is this:

I fear that it will soon become very obvious who the killer is, and without any deliberate action in my part to show that. I fear that my readers would lose interest if they figured out the fairly predictable "plot twist", which would then trivialize the real focus of the story, which is the MC's motivation behind the murders. (It's supposed to be interesting because my audience may consist a good proportion of amateur horror-writers, and this is meant to be reflective.)

Some solutions I considered:

1: Hide the murderer's identity really well:
Study classic murder mysteries, and employ tropes and techniques from these to set up misdirection for the reader, not the least of which being the fact that most classic murder mystery's murderer is someone other than the MC.

2: Hide the murderer's identity, but using narration techniques:
Basically the same as 1, but focus instead on making the MC seem innocent via his narration of what's happening--describe him in states of confusion, make him explicate his speculations on the possible causes of the victims' disappearances. This could be tricky because I don't want to undermine the psychopathic personality of the MC, but I shouldn't show that too explicitly either.

3: Obscure the cause of the deaths:
Make all the corpses disappear no matter how well protected, and misdirect the readers into thinking that some sort of supernatural evil is at work, where as in reality, it's because the MC ate the corpses and threw the left over into the sea.

4: Accept that the readers will figure out who is the murderer, but retain their interest:
Most nuanced (IMO) option, but consequently also the most apparently difficult. What could retain readers' interest after they figure out the murderer's identity? Could they be curious about the motivation of the MC? or would they simply dismiss him as a psychopath and sweep that question under the rug? Could they have any desire to see whether the other characters (namely MC's girlfriend) will survive the final confrontation? or would the sociopathic presentation of her make her appear unlikable? What about other seemingly inexplicable things being gradually revealed, such as the absolute bloody mess left where the victims were is (slowly and dramatically revealed to be) due to the MC's cannibal practices?

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There are two lines of thought that come to my mind:

First, this is a first person narrative, so the narration happens at some time after all that happened. Now, having done such a horrible thing, he might be in a state of self-denial. Also, he's a horror story author, so he's used to imagine horrible things that didn't ever happen, in order to then write them down as stories.

So he could start writing things down as a boat trip where he imagined how he would do all those things, and only in the course of the story it becomes clear that it was not just his fantasy, but he actually did it. By hinting early on about the possibility of doing it in real, but at the same time leaving it open for a sufficient time whether those things actually happened, I guess you could keep the suspense for quite some time.

Second: How does he hide the fact from the other people on the boat? After all, a boat is a confined space where it is hard (and gets ever harder the less people are left) to prevent others finding out who did it. But if they found out early on, surely they would stop him, one way or the other.

So his murders need a high degree of planning, and that planning, the question what could go wrong, and whether he will succeed, is in itself a source of tension.

Consider the movie Kind Hearts and Coronets. While not horror, but a black comedy, the same principle is at work here: We know from a very early point that he plans to kill, but that doesn't kill suspense. The suspence does not come from the question "who did it" (we know very well the answer), but from the question "how will he do it, and will he succeed?"

Note that this can also work well together with the first suggestion: He may first write several plans that don't work out in the form of real action, in which he then gets caught, and only then a sentence like "that didn't work, I would have to think of a different method" reveals that it was only a planning. That will cause the reader to suspect that the following descriptions, done in the same way, are also just his imaginations how he would do it. All the while making sure that the non-murder related things that go on on the boat are clearly identified as real.

Then you would start making initially only subtle hints on the reality of what he did, e.g. by writing "that worked" instead of "that would work". Only gradually the reader would learn about the reality of the versions that worked, for example because the behaviour of the still living people only being explainable by the murders being real. Or more subtly, simply because the killed ones no more appear in the story.

  • I think this one nails it! I was going to suggest the same tricks that you mention first, however, your thorough build-up is so on point that I'm glad you beat me to it. Nice. – storbror Feb 18 '18 at 13:05
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I don't think this story will work, or your solutions are viable, for the reasons you wrote. You violate reader trust from the beginning, the first person narrator knows he intends to kill everyone and knows he is the murderer, how can you possibly relate the murder of the first person, with him telling the tale, and NOT revealing he is the killer?

Basically you have an untrustworthy narrator, and to be fair to the reader you must signal this untrustworthiness early in the story, before any killing, but then again, because your narrator is untrustworthy they will figure out he is the killer.

If I were writing this story, I would begin with the admission of guilt. "I intended to kill six, and six died."

And show the squirming worms in the head of the narrator as he seduces his victims onto the boat or whatever, and misleads the others into thinking, say, his girlfriend Alice or one of the others is the murderer, leaving them for last, and then, when it is just him, Jack and his girlfriend, arrange to make it look like Jack came to kill HIM and he kills Jack in self-defense. Okay, Alice, we're safe ... (until I come for you).

Your twist can be, Alice already figured out it IS him, because she hacked his amateur passwords a year ago, when she first moved in, and she has read all his hackneyed horror fantasies and recognized his fictional serial killer in the first murder! He doesn't know that when Alice rushes to hug him, because they are safe, and he basks in the knowledge he has saved the best torture for last with her, until the moment she slices through his femoral artery with a butcher knife.

Then, while he bleeds out on the deck, Alice explains it all to HIM.

Then, he can say, "I intended to kill six, and six died."

He just did not expect to be one of them. And your narrator can be truthful throughout.

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    I don't think it's entirely unfeasible for the first-person narrator to withhold a secret like that, or that it is necessary to divulge the unreliability of the narrator upfront. That alternative suggestion is very entertaining, however, and it may be something I considered seriously. – user289661 Feb 16 '18 at 23:02
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It would be difficult to pull off a first person murderer in a mystery format and still play fair with the audience.

About the only way I can see to make it work is to present the entire narrative as a fictionalized story (or perhaps notes for a story) that the narrator is writing about his own experience. With that as the framework, it makes sense that the narrator is deliberately concealing his own guilt --it lessens the presumption of transparent insight into the narrator's mind that we expect from a first person narrative. It also gives you a possible secondary motivation for your MC --he's doing primary research for his own writing (observing people's reactions, etc.).

In essence, you'll be presenting two overlapping stories here --a murder mystery, as written by your MC, and a thriller (where it is not as important to conceal the murderer's identity), as presented by you, the real author. I think this also meets your larger goal of serving up a bit of (hopefully not too) relatable metafiction for an audience of writers.

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"...and, unsurprisingly, the MC is a murderer…"

If it's this obvious consider going with #4, but don't think of it as "Surprise! The main character turns out to be the murderer…". Instead try "My main character wants to be a murderer. Now what…?" Then he can ask himself all the these questions and debate the answers as he plots the ultimate murder. He's our protagonist so we see him plan and make decisions, something goes wrong, he has to improvise, he has doubts, he over-thinks the meaning of them and how his friends will react to each detail, he is disappointed when they miss something, etc.

In a murder mystery, the crime is a puzzle that can be solved by the reader. There will be clues and red herrings, but the author is not deliberately trying to "trick" the reader down the wrong path. A villain might leave a false trail for the detective, but not the reader.

But for horror the murders are not a puzzle to be solved. They create tension as gruesome things are happening for unknown reasons, and suspense because "one of us is a madman". Structurally, they serve as a countdown until the Last Girl. There's no reason any of these deaths need to make sense, and certainly no reason for the characters to make sense of it. The whole point is fear closing in, and hope diminishing.

If the killer is trying to get his friends to "solve the puzzle" he will pre-announce the time people will die and leave plenty of clues, assuming himself to be a mastermind.

If the killer wants to watch everyone go insane from authentic fear, he will not be giving them time to ponder who is doing this or why. He will keep them as confused as possible and perhaps direct suspicion on one to tempt the others to turn against him. The evidence he leaves behind will not be clues to solve a puzzle, but hints of more terror to come.

  • Interesting distinction you made between horror and mystery, and I agree with your point that mysteries should be puzzles that the readers will have enough information to solve. Originally, I approached this story idea with the cynical assumption that the readers themselves will jump to conclusions using common tropes in this sort of writing. What you said is polarizing, it appears that the story has to align more closely with one genre or the other. – user289661 Feb 16 '18 at 23:08
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This is an "I have chosen the wrong point of view for the story I want to tell. How do I make it work anyway?" question. We get them a lot.

The answer is, change the point of view so that the story does work.

Choose the right tools for the job. If someone asks you, "I am entering a hundred yard dash in hip waders. How to I go faster?" Your reply would be "Take off the hip waders and put on running shoes." The answer to this question is the same.

Point of view is simply a device for telling a particular story. It is the point from which the arc of the story can be logically developed and observed. If you choose the wrong one, the story won't work. The only answer that make any sense is to choose the right point of view for the story you want to tell.

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  1. Make sure the reader know who the murderer is from the beginning, and then introduce Columbo.

Let's take my joke as a serious answer: assume we know the murderer from the very start of the story, what is the point of the story then? The answer is: What are the aftermath? Is there an investigation? Did he really took care of every piece of evidence against him? What if he made a mistake? Will he escape the police? What will happen to him if he's arrested? What if he's not? Will his nightmares pursue him?

If you are worried about the twist, we as a reader may not know immediately why he did it. This can be revealed bits after bits, or in a flashback with the last victim. Or during his arrestation.

When the murderer is discovered, it does not necessarily sign the end of the whole story. There's a lot of questions to be answered even when the reader know the truth, up to you to leave some questions open for after the reveal: the reader will not lose interest if there is still questions unanswered. If done well, a subplot can do the trick: "well, I know who the murderer is and why he did it, but will the dog survive?"

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