Part of a mystery author’s job is presenting a slate of suspects, any one of whom could be the killer. Savvy readers are trying to beat your sleuth to the murderer’s identity and they’re primed to pick up every clue. The mystery author’s challenge is to plant a sufficient number of clues to play fair with the reader, but not do so in a way that enables even the most alert of readers to pinpoint the killer before the third act.
Planting clues (legitimate) and red herrings (bits of information that might be mistaken for clues) is a skill unto itself and you’ll get better at it with practice. However, here are some ideas to start with.
Mix red herrings in with legitimate clues
Try not to signal the presence of a red herring or a clue by having your sleuth pay more attention to one than the other.
Hide things in lists
Be sparing and creative with this. In The Readaholics and the Gothic Gala, I had a kleptomaniac return items she had stolen. One by one, people looked in the basket of trinkets she brought down and took out their sunglasses, snow globe, travel alarm clock, silver bangle, Swiss Army knife, framed photo, and keys on a distinctive key chain. I spread this list over several paragraphs, as people identified their items (making it more likely readers would read it), and I hid not one but two clues in the list, throwing off readers who were busy congratulating themselves when they found the first clue.
A twist on hiding things in lists is to leave something off the list that ought to be there. For instance, in the coroner’s list of the victim’s effects, where’s the diamond ring we saw her wearing earlier?
Let your sleuth get it wrong
Misinterpret data or evidence, or trust the wrong person. If your sleuth believes the lying witness, readers will, too.
Plant crucial clues early, before readers have settled in
The clue can come before the murder, even.
Reveal an important clue, but not what’s important about it
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, Christie several times mentions a character’s choker necklace. She included that detail not to comment on the character’s taste or financial status, but because it covered up a scar that would have revealed the character’s true identity (and motive for murder).
Give it the “savvy reader” test
After completing your manuscript, have a couple of mystery savvy friends read it and ask them to note on the pages what items/information they thought were clues, and who they thought did it at any given time. This can help you figure out if you’re “broadcasting” the killer (in which case you need to delete some clues or find ways to incorporate them more subtly), or if you’re cheating (by not providing enough clues for the reader to figure out whodunit).
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