Clues are the building blocks of a good mystery novel. The kind of clues and their placement in the novel can make the difference between a simple, run-of-the-mill reader challenge, and the kind of complex puzzle mystery readers love. Clues have two purposes. One is to send the sleuth and the reader in a direction that leads to apprehension of the villain. The other purpose is to point the sleuth and reader in directions that lead to the wrong solution. This second kind of clue is called a “red herring.”
We’ll take a look at “red herrings” in another post. Today’s piece will deal with the first kind of clue.
The creation of real clues that guide readers through a maze that eventually leads to the culprit can be a difficult but never boring task for the mystery writer, but well worth the effort. Here are some strategies to consider. Create clues that
• can be misunderstood, sending the detective off in the wrong direction. The footprints outside the victim’s window belonged to a voyeur, not the murderer.
• can be interpreted more than one way. The note pinned on the victim’s door said, “This is your last chance. Do it or die.” It could have come from the murderer or a girlfriend talking up a sale.
• point to more than one suspect. Two empty wine glasses could point to a friend of the victim, the victim’s alcoholic mother, or the killer.
• are part of a sequence of events or a list of related items. Clues buried in this way might not be noticed.
• are couched in the middle of an emotional scene or one full of action. This strategy dwarfs the importance of the clue.
•are spaced throughout the story. Don’t have a clue dump at the beginning or end of the story.
• point to motive and opportunity for more than one suspect. The real killer’s motive should be expressed, but not emphasized.
Clues can be found almost anywhere—through forensics at crime scenes or in the background and relationships of the victim or murderer.
Gillian Roberts states in her blog: “A clue can be nearly anything—an action, a gesture, a speech pattern, attire…”(Writing Lesson #13)
Clues are fun for the mystery novelist to create and for the mystery buff to find and track.
More Writing tips: