A good mystery novel’s reader may feel satisfaction at having figured out the story’s secret. However, the reader of an especially well-constructed mystery might possibly experience even more enjoyment at book’s end when a solution is revealed to them that’s both surprising and one that’s been hiding in plain sight.
Being tricked by a fiction writer’s sleight of hand makes the experience of reading their novels even more absorbing and entertaining. Such an intellectual challenge may well spur on readers to buy the author’s next book.
That’s for me to know and you to find out
A mystery writer’s job is the proper placement of clues—things in the story that may be overlooked but then turn out to matter.
The reader is led to believe the plot is going one way, but instead it goes another. And at story’s end, the reader realizes the relevant facts (clues) have been there all along. It’s like a magician distracting the audience from what’s right before them.
Examples of clues: a dying character’s mysterious last words, a dubious timeline, a creepy Internet search, a blood-splattered pant cuff, a bracelet, a physical resemblance, an encrypted note, DNA, a mislabeled bottle, a diary with pages missing, a stolen artifact, a bank transfer, odd behavior.
The good clue
The best clue has a mini-spotlight on it. Readers remember it even as they may dismiss or misinterpret it. However, the clue that’s too buried may be less provocative. The subtlety of a story’s individual clues is a matter of debate for every writer at work on a mystery.
Mystery writers construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct plots. Think about what happens in your plot. The events that occur leave behind traces or debris of some sort. Using whatever is presented to them, your readers must determine what is relevant … or perhaps what’s missing. That’s fun.
All is fair in love and literature, I suppose. When writers provide readers with what may be thought of as an old-fashioned clue, the relevant facts are there even as most readers are highly unlikely to mold them into solid conclusions.
Agatha Christie may be the bestselling novelist of all time, but readers without her specialized knowledge from a past as a pharmacist may be hard-pressed to recognize some of her clues. Who knew that a certain chemical leaves no traces in a corpse? Well, Agatha did. In other words, despite the facts being present on the page, one is unlikely to figure out certain mysteries unless you’re a genius like Hercule Poirot.
In Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the reader may try and understand what an H on a relevant handkerchief stands for, but it’s Poirot who realizes the H is actually a Cyrillic N—standing for one of the characters, Natalia. In this story, readers lacking a knowledge of Russian have a disadvantage.
Red Herrings: The Anti-Clues
Long ago and maybe even now, English fox hunters trained hunting dogs by dragging red herrings along a scent trail. When the dogs finally learned how to ignore these false clues, they were ready to hunt.
Including “red herrings”—the term indicating plot points purposely designed by a mystery writer to send readers off-course—adds additional complexity to your story’s puzzle.
But tricking a reader is different from lying to them. Say, for example, at an especially fraught moment a nervous character is terrified when they get a suspicious hang-up phone call. Later, it turns out this had nothing to do with the book’s central plot. But before the end of the book, this-red-herring-phone-call needs to be explained. To tie up this loose end, another character might say, “Oh, sorry I hung up on you the other day. Someone was at the door.” While red herrings are intentionally misleading, they should not be false.
- The narrator leads you astray.
Something happens in the narrative and the POV makes a false assumption. The reader believes it. In Hitchcock’s film The Man Who Knew Too Much, a dying man whispers to Dr. Ben McKenna that he must warn authorities about Ambrose Chappell. Following the trail, McKenna ends up in a brawl in a taxidermist’s shop owned by a man named Ambrose Chappell, not realizing until later that Ambrose Chapel is actually a place: a grim church infested with kidnappers.
- Other characters lead you astray.
Neighborhood gossip and nasty assumptions provide good cover for a killer in Ruth Rendell’s The Secret House of Death.
- The premise or accepted narrative is wrong.
If readers are led to believe a crime happened at two o’clock in the morning, the suspects’ alibis are examined in that context. When that time frame is later discovered to be erroneous, everything changes and every clue and alibi must be reconsidered.
In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn uses the book’s structure to provide clues. A diary sends readers in the wrong direction.
“Too many clues!” That’s Hercule Poirot’s conundrum in Murder on the Orient Express. In that classic tale (mentioned above), a rich presentation of many, many clues leads the great detective to recognize a deadly manipulation at work.
The validity of clues is also a topic explored in Caleb Carr’s Surrender, New York. In that novel, ex-cop and criminal psychologist Trajan Jones—on the trail of a serial killer terrorizing a rural community—denounces the over-reliance on science in modern day detective work. Experience has taught Jones that forensics can be faked. In this case, falsified clues and staged crime scenes are evidence of a particularly fiendish mind at work.
- Distract immediately after a clue to avoid too much scrutiny.
While you offer readers the chance to follow the clues, don’t make it too easy. Place a crucial clue just before a dramatic or especially memorable event so your readers are sidetracked.
- What’s missing.
To get more complicated and challenging, follow the example of Arthur Conan Doyle. In his Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” the key clue to a horse trainer’s murder is what isn’t there. This is “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Why didn’t the stable dog bark on the night a killer attacked the horse trainer? Because the killer was no stranger to the dog.
- Summarize truth or lies.
Bestselling suspense author Hank Phillippi Ryan suggests one way to slyly emphasize your story’s clues (or red herrings). About halfway through the book, Hank recommends sneaking in a summary of sorts recapping what you want readers to remember. Maybe this happens in dialogue or in internal thoughts. Underscore points that orient readers in the ways you intended.
Review and revise
As stated above, mystery writers construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct their plots. Then, after a first draft, it’s time to review the picture presented.
- The story should be layered rather than cluttered with clues. The goal is suspense, not confusion.
- Are any clues or misdirects too obvious? Take away any that make it too easy for readers.
- Scan for relevant plot info that might also be eliminated to heighten suspense.
- At the end of the book, relevant clues that were overlooked along the way should now be obvious.
The mystery of clues
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter,” thought by some to be the first modern detective story, includes as an epigraph a quote from Plutarch: “Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness.” Place your clues with great care. Grateful readers will reward you.
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