Today’s mystery fans expect writers to play fair.
Readers, and therefore agents and editors, will no longer accept the sudden appearance at the climax of a villain who’s never been seen or mentioned before. They want the killer — masquerading as an innocent party — to show up early in the book and appear at least a few times during the story. Readers want to know what the protagonist knows, and they expect the writer to provide enough clues to allow readers to either solve the crime along with the sleuth or look back over the story and say, “Ah, now I see what this and this and this meant.”
A clue is anything that points to the killer’s identity. Clues come in many guises and, far from making a story formulaic, they can be used to create original mysteries that keep readers enthralled to the end.
In addition to genuine clues, you need red herrings, false clues, and misdirection. Red herrings — the term comes from the practice of dragging a dead fish across a trail to throw hunting dogs off the scent of their prey — can be factual, but they take the sleuth (and reader) in the wrong direction and don’t help solve the crime. For example, in Tess Gerritsen’s The Sinner, the discovery that the murdered nun recently gave birth appears at first to be a vital clue to the crime, but it’s a red herring that has nothing to do with the killing.
False clues can be planted by the killer to make an innocent person look guilty and prevent the police from finding the real culprit. “Evidence” that the murder victim was raped in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent is a false clue. Misdirection can be accomplished by burying a clue in a scene, letting it come from an untrustworthy source, or distracting the sleuth immediately after the clue is revealed, so that its meaning is overlooked. Placing a clue in plain sight can make it so obvious that both detective and reader will dismiss it.
The genuine clues you might use include:
- Forensic evidence at crime scenes — blood, fibers, hairs, clothing, “signature” objects left by the killer, etc.
- An unusual murder method that points to the killer’s profession or emotional state.
- Items in the victim’s or suspects’ homes — letters, jewelry, photos, almost anything that can reveal a relationship between the victim and the killer. As with crime scenes, something that should be present might be missing, or something may be found that shouldn’t be there.
- Emotional ties to the victim — love, hate, greed, and jealousy can all lead to murder.
- Secrets — everyone has secrets, and so must your characters. A murder investigation exposes the secrets of the innocent as well as the guilty, and the need to hide information makes people behave furtively, self-defensively. One secret will lead to the killer. The rest will entertain the reader and confuse the sleuth.
Deciding who your murderer is and outlining the plot before you start writing simplifies the clue-planting process enormously. You can plant clues and red herrings strategically as you outline, spacing them so they won’t tip off the reader too early.
If you prefer not to outline, you may still produce an excellent book, but you might have to do some backtracking and rearranging of plot elements to accommodate your clues.
Try not to let the reader spot things that your sleuth initially misses or doesn’t understand, because that will make your protagonist look stupid.
Most readers love surprises and twists, but you can exhaust your audience if you produce a new twist on every page. If you lead readers in one direction for a while, making think they’ve figured out exactly what’s going on, then confound them with a twist that changes everything, they’ll stop trusting their own instincts – and will love you for it. A surprise ending depends on the reader overlooking or distrusting something vital that has come before.
The ending is often the weakest part of a mystery. This can be due to the grueling book-a-year (or more) deadlines many mystery writers must meet. They rush the writing, fail to place clues properly, and produce endings that seem abrupt and may not make a lot of sense. If you’re not yet bound by a deadline, you can take your time, think your story through to the conclusion, and be sure your plot, your clues, and your ending work logically. You’ll develop working habits that will continue to serve you well when you have deadlines to meet.