I went to the source for the following questions:
Susan Quinn asked: How do you reveal a key clue to the mystery in your story, without letting the reader know it's a clue until later, when everything finally clicks into place?
Both of these questions relate well to mysteries. And there's no better blogging mystery expert than Elizabeth Craig! SO here's her response:
Thanks so much to Lisa for inviting me here today to talk about a couple of important mystery elements. Since she’s recently gotten questions in her comments about laying clues and including twists in our stories, those are the two topics that I’ll cover today.
One of the most important rules of mystery writing is that the reader must be kept in the loop. We can’t write mysteries where the sleuth is privy to information that we don’t provide the readers. Reading a mystery is almost an interactive experience—we’re solving the crime alongside the sleuth.
So how do we supply enough clues to point to the murderer without actually giving away the killer until the end of the book?
The best way I’ve found to lay clues is a technique I think most mystery writers employ: distraction. Here are some ways to do it:
Include the clue in a list of other, less-crucial observations. There’s a smudge of white paint on a suspect who is also unshaven, unkempt, smells like oranges, and has a runny nose.
Lay the clue but immediately introduce a red herring (false clue) that seems much more important. The suspect mentions going out for breakfast at a time he previously stated he was sleeping at home. This information is immediately followed by Penelope’s revelation that Cindy, the victim’s secretary, will unexpectedly receive a large sum of money from the victim’s estate.
Drop the clue and immediately distract attention away from it by an interruption. Carter has just revealed information that seems contradictory to something the sleuth believes to be true. Suddenly, they hear shouting outside and two suspects are engaged in what looks like a life and death struggle after one accuses the other of being the murderer.
Use a minor distraction. The interruption doesn’t have to be violent—it could be something as quiet as another character arriving at the scene and cutting off the sleuth’s ability to analyze or process important information she’s been given.
Twists are fun to write for any genre. The trick is to make sure the readers don’t feel like they’ve been tricked or cheated (the “it was all a dream” scenario where we find out the events in a book, television series, or movie didn’t actually even occur.)
I’d use some examples here, but we run into the problem of spoilers. So I’ll keep it vague and if you’ve seen or read this technique in action, you’ll be able to think of your own examples.
Unreliable narrator: This can be tricky, but is really effective if done well. The idea is to make the reader believe that the person telling the story is a reliable and trustworthy observer…then show them in the plot twist that the narrator is anything but. I’ve seen this done where the narrator is actually the killer in the mystery, where they’re mentally unstable or incompetent, or where we learn the first person narrator is a young child or even an animal.
Chekov’s gun: This is a technique where you take a common object that seems unimportant and imbue it with some form of usefulness, symbolism, or importance later in the story.
Unlikely perp: Someone your protagonist and readers trust and believe in turns out to be the perpetrator or villain. You’ve got to make sure you’ve laid clues to point to this person…the reader will likely discount those clues since they’ve written that person off as a suspect or bad guy.
Surprise identity of a main character: In this twist, we receive a surprising revelation about a main character. We learn the protagonist is a double agent, for example. Or we discover (maybe the protagonist makes a simultaneous discovery) that either the protagonist or other important character has a shocking relationship or link to another—he is the child or parent or sibling, etc., of another.
A surprising twist in something we’d assumed to be true: The story isn’t set in modern times, it’s set 200 years in the future. The story isn’t populated by humans at all but by aliens. Something that appears to be true is completely false. We think that all of the characters are reliable and trustworthy and reasonable, then we learn that the story is set in an asylum or prison. I think these types of twists would likely only be considered fair in short stories or similar forms.
In mysteries, using an unreliable witness can also be effective in helping to provide a twist. You’ve written in a character who is known by all to be highly unreliable—a habitual liar, someone in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, maybe even a young child—and then this person provides information that points to the killer. Real and useful information that shouldn’t be discounted, but is because of the way the writer has set-up the situation for the reader.
Can you think of any other ways to lay clues or provide plot twists? Which are some of your favorite techniques? Have you used these in your writing?
Elizabeth’s latest book Hickory Smoked Homicide released November 1. Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink and independently. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011.