And other slippery things!
Inherent in most mysteries, and occasionally suspense novels, is a slate of suspects, any one of whom could be the killer. Savvy readers are primed to pick up every clue, figuring out who did the deed well ahead of those final words, “The End.”
Planting legitimate clues along with red herrings is a skill an author gets better at with practice. Here are some thoughts on using clues and red herrings.
1. Mix red herrings in with actual clues. Try not to signal the presence of one or the other by having your protagonist pay more attention to one than the other. If your protag discovered two items on the victim’s calendar, for example, both near the time of death, don’t have him following up only one, or spend more time thinking about the significance of only one.
2. Hide things in lists. If your protag is listening to the news and hears about a sports event, a beating death and a traffic jam, which item will the reader key in on? The death. But if the protag hears about the beating death, a murder-suicide, and a child’s kidnapping, it’s more difficult to pick up on the real clue.
A twist on this method is to leave something off the list, i.e., a detective goes through the victim’s personal effects and finds money, a wedding ring and credit cards, but not the cell phone she used incessantly.
3. Let your protag get it wrong, misinterpret data or evidence, or trust the wrong person. If your sleuth believes the lying witness, readers will, too. Similarly, if your sleuth interprets the blood drops in the car as a sign that the body was transported in the vehicle, readers will, also . . . right up until you reveal that the victim had a nosebleed earlier in that car.
4. Plant crucial clues early, before the readers have settled in. The clue can even come before the murder. For instance, in the first paragraph or scene, we learn that a character went to Stanford. Three-quarters of the way through, this becomes important when we learn that the victim’s time in California had something to do with his death. Few readers will remember that Character X went to Stanford, or connect it with California. If they do, it will be because you were smart enough not to emphasize that Stanford is in California.
5. Reveal an important clue, but not what’s important about it. Say your protag finds the victim’s calendar on his fridge, filled with appointments for his last day on earth. What turns out to be important is not any one of the appointments, but the fact that the calendar is a promotional one distributed by a particular realtor.
After completing your manuscript, have a couple of mystery savvy friends read it and ask them to note on the page what items/information the thought were clues, and who they thought did it at any given time. This will help you figure out if you’re “broadcasting’ the killer. If so, you’ll 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 who dunit!
I’d love to hear your comments on clues and red herrings. Do red herrings ever become annoying? Or do they make the unraveling of the plot more interesting? I use them in my novels, but sometimes worry that I spend too much time on them, annoying my readers. What do you think? Please leave a comment.These tips were taken from a wonderful handout distributed at a writer's workshop put on by Mystery Writers of America this summer. I highly recommend attending one of their workshops, which are put on in different locations annually. Excellent information! firstname.lastname@example.org
Have a wonderful week.