By Zara Altair
Writing a traditional mystery takes planning, and clues are a major part of that plan. Mysteries are puzzles and, as a mystery writer, you are playing a game with your reader. You want to play fair by not giving away too much, and yet setting a trail of clues that does not surprise them in the end.
Your aim is for readers to think, “I should have guessed that.” But they didn’t.
What you need is a strategy to hide your clues in plain sight. As a mystery writer, you can develop tactics in the puzzle you create for your reader.
Ten Ways to Tantalize Your Reader
Sequence Diversion –
Put the real clue right before the false one. Readers and your sleuth often focus on the last clue presented. If you’re getting started with mystery writing, this tactic is a great place to start. Mention or show the clue first and then immediately focus on a different clue or red herring.
Secret Emphasis –
Emphasize the unimportant, but de-emphasize the clue. The reader sees the clue but doesn’t see what’s important about it. For example, your sleuth may see the value of a company report and the statistical details but doesn’t look at the man who researched and wrote the report.
Before It Counts –
Early on, plant the clue before it has any context. Your sleuth may walk by a man cleaning his yacht with chemicals before a business partner dies of toxic chemical poisoning. Carolyn Graham uses this tactic in her Inspector Barnaby mysteries.
Missed It –
Your sleuth misinterprets the meaning of a clue. The murder took place in a room with open windows. Your detective believes that’s how the murderer escaped. But the windows were open to let in the evening breeze and the murderer escaped through the door and out the back staircase. This is a great tool to use with a flawed sleuth whose flaw keeps her from seeing the real meaning.
The Not a Clue –
The clue is what isn’t there. Although the sleuth deduces certain actions happened, the real clue is what is absent. A classic clue that isn’t there is when Sherlock Holmes realizes the dog didn’t bark in “Silver Blaze.” There was no intruder.
Piece by Piece –
A time-release method to scatter pieces of the clue in different places through the story. Then mix up the logical order. Your sleuth finds an empty aquarium, water but no fish in a suspect’s room. Later on she finds six fish bodies tossed out a window. She has an “epiphany” when she remembers the empty aquarium.
In Plain Sight –
Create a cluster of clues and squeeze the real clue in with all the others. Hide the clue in plain sight. This technique works well in a story with multiple suspects from Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express to John D. MacDonald’s hard boiled Travis McGee (pick one).
Draw your reader’s attention away from the clue. The sleuth and the reader follow a false trail. What seem like the most evident clues are not the real trail to the suspect. In Adrian McKinty’s The Cold, Cold Ground the clues seem to lead toward a serial killer who targets homosexuals. Not the case at all.
Time Seed –
Create a time problem. A suspect has an alibi for the time of the murder. Later it turns out that the murder was earlier and the alibi does not work. Or the suspect claims a time as an alibi but could get away during the time covered by the alibi.
Camouflage with Action –
Camouflage a clue with action. Just as your sleuth glances at a scrap of paper on the floor, he’s hit from behind. In the ensuing action and consequences—trip to the hospital, a missed appointment because of time in the hospital, etc.—your sleuth overlooks the clue. Jo Nesbø uses action camouflage in his Harry Høle series.
Emulation is no crime for writers. Read your favorite authors, note how they plant their clues. Follow their example in your own style. Increase your clue planting skills by reading mystery and crime stories outside of your genre. For example, if you write cozy mysteries try reading a crime thriller. Push your envelope. Experiment with different tactics. Lead your reader toward the puzzle prize – the real villain revealed.
Zara Altair writes The Argolicus Mysteries set in Ostrogoth-ruled Italy featuring patrician Argolicus and his lifelong tutor, Nikolaos: The Used Virgin, The Peach Widow, and The Roman Heir. She writes for the web as a semantic copywriter and is working on a book for writers: SEO for Authors. Zara also coaches budding writers to create winning stories as The Story Bodyguard.