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Article: Effectively Leaving Clues in Mystery Stories

Written by raphaelish

In one's whodunnit, it can be murder to try and leave a clue which is oh-so-covert but still overt enough to be picked up by the the discerning reader. The obvious remedy to this is a red herring, but how many leave a fishy aftertaste? How can one weave clever clues into the tapestry of mystery without them sticking out like a sore thumb?

1. Write a plot outline
One of the most important, and practical, things you can do to ensure a tightly constructed mystery story, complete with clever clues and brilliant red herrings, is to write a plot outline. Plan exactly what is going to happen, when it's going to happen, who it's going to involve, why it's happening and how it's going to be done. This will help give you insight into where to insert your clues - without making them seem too obvious - and stop you from turning twists and turns into melodrama (see point 7).
You may want to structure your mystery's plot outline a little differently to the usual. I like to think of mine in terms of three layers.

The first layer to put into your outline is the events that will happen (see point 4 for an example). The next is for clues, and the third and final layer is for red herrings (a pseudo-clue to lead your reader down the wrong path). If you're doing this by hand, write each layer in a different-coloured pen; if you prefer to type your outlines, do one in plain text, one in bold text, and one italicized.

2. First impressions count
Character descriptions mark a perfect place to inject a clue or red herring into your story, as they can seem like just another fun fact about a suspect-to-be. For example:

Adriana was very much the classical beauty, with flaxen hair down to her waist and blue eyes which sparkled like the sea. Men huddled around her, exchanging anecdotes and offering her drinks as she giggled and beamed. Around her neck she wore two necklaces: a diamond-embedded crucifix in solid gold, and a silver-plated locket engraved with an A.

From these three short sentences, we learn a lot about Adriana. a) She's beautiful; b) she has blonde hair and blue eyes; c) she wears a crucifix; d) she wears a locket engraved with the first letter of her name. From this the reader can jump to several conclusions about her: a) she is able to use her looks to get what she wants (and perhaps what she doesn't); b) because of this, she could be a femme fatale-type character; c) she's Christian, and; d) the locket indicates she's the sentimental type.
None of this information, or all of it, could be relevant or even true.

3. If a clue seems too out of place...
Consider this alternative description of Adriana:

Adriana was very much the classical beauty, with flaxen hair down to her waist and blue eyes which sparkled like the sea. Men huddled around her, exchanging anecdotes and offering her drinks as she giggled and beamed. I noticed that she was hugging a Gucci handbag tight to her chest, which had the finger of a single latex glove poking out of it.

Whoa there! Single latex glove? Why would Adriana need a single latex glove? No matter what, your readers are going to think something of this: either that this is obviously a clue, or obviously a red herring. And once another latex glove is (or isn't) found at the scene of the crime, readers are either going to be watching everything Adriana does very carefully, or completely crossing her off their suspect lists.

That isn't to say that you mustn't, under no circumstances, ever do this. If you're clever (which, as a member of Brigit's Flame, you are), you can actually use this to your advantage. Perhaps there's a perfectly mundane explanation for the single-latex-glove-of-doom. Maybe Adriana is mysophobic, or the glove is a lucky charm, given to her by her late mother.

4. Timing is everything
Let's suppose I've decided to run with Adriana's single latex glove as a clue. From here on in, timing is everything. If the latex glove is mentioned, or alluded to, too soon after its first appearance, readers are going to start to build a picture of what has or hasn't happened in their heads. You, as the writer, are going to want to leave a significant amount of space between the latex glove's first and second appearances. This doesn't necessarily mean several thousands of words as the gap, it means a lot of content. For example, in a locked room-type scenario, the series of events could be set out like this:

  1. The Latex Glove first appears.
  2. The rest of the characters, and their quirks, are introduced.
  3. A freak storm traps everyone on the island.
  4. The main event (i.e. the murder, the robbery, etc.) takes place, if it hasn't already.
  5. The crime scene is thoroughly searched over.
  6. One of the characters has a heart attack, or a nervous breakdown.
  7. Incidentally, the latex glove's twin makes its second appearance.

With a good amount of content in between, only the most observant of readers will pick up on the reappearance of the latex glove. By this time, multiple other characters and their motives will be stewing away in his/her mind, and a lot more possibilities for the identity of the culprit will have been established.

5. More than one plot thread
Multiple narrative strands add depth to your story, and add another dimension clue-wise: which clue ties to which mystery? In our example story, let's add another enigma into the mix:

In the center of the library, a black-and-white photograph of a baby sat on a mahogany table, surrounded by candles and a wreath of lilies. The room seemed to be completely centered around this curious, makeshift shrine. Aunt Margaret had certainly never mentioned anything about another cousin, and Uncle Frank was adamant that all the members of the family had been present at last summer's reunion.

6. Don't be afraid to be cryptic
While undoubtedly unsubtle, a cryptic clue is a fantastic way of thickening the plot. A letter, message or bizarre exclamation in gibberish or code (or what appears to be) can be just what the doctor ordered in terms of a clue or red herring. In this (mega-melodramatic) next example, our secondary plot thread becomes even more confusing:

Margaret sunk to the floor, dropping her glass of champagne and clutching her chest in agony. She stared wild-eyed at all of us, yelling "Sam! You've finally come back!", before collapsing in a crumpled heap. Dead.

Suddenly, the story is again awash with possibilities. Could Sam be the child in the picture? Does she even exist - and if she does, what is she doing among our cast of characters? Suspicion is thrown on everyone, but in particular, Adriana and her 'A' locket. She seems to be going to a lot of trouble to prove her identity. Coincidence?

7. Twists and turns in just the right dosage
While the example story you've been reading until now has certainly been so, melodrama is not something a mystery story should aim for. As a mystery buff myself, one of my favourite features of a whodunnit novel is the (sometimes) shocking twists and turns the plot will take. Something like this will certainly add excitement (and can provide the final clues to your piece), but it takes a deft hand to ensure it doesn't turn your hard work into a soap opera. To make sure that this doesn't happen, ensure that your plot has a good amount of lead-up before it veers sharply off course - all the while without making the twist too obvious.

Another tip is that it must be in context: for example, Adriana couldn't suddenly remove her wig and reveal that she is in fact Sam - and also male. If you were to use this plot device, several hints would need to be dropped along the way, such as the protagonist noting something odd about Adriana's mannerisms or an anecdote she has told (or something else of the sort). Again, it's about the perfect amount of lead-up; character backstory is the key.

8. Read, read, read
Finally, one of the best things you can do for your craft (for all genres of writing, but particularly mystery) is read. Go to your library, borrow some Agatha Christie, some Kathy Reichs, some Arthur Conan Doyle - see how they construct their plots and leave their clues. It's the best thing you can do to get into the swing of things.

Well, that's it! Thank you for sticking with this, and reading it through to the end.
I hope that is has been some help - good luck with your story!

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