Thursday, December 15, 2011

Laying Clues and Adding Twists to Our Story—guest post by Elizabeth S. Craig

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?

AND Cynthia Chapman Willis asked: What is the best way to set up a twist at the end of a novel that readers do not see coming, yet makes perfect sense once they read it. You know, that slap the forehead "but of course" sense that we get when we've read a really great twist.  
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: distractionHere 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.

Plot Twists
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.
Writer's Knowledge Base--the Search Engine for Writers
Twitter: @elizabethscraig


  1. What a great post, Elizabeth. And so useful.

    I love how you talk about distraction. That's one thing I feel that J.K. Rowling did very well with the Potter series. I like to think of it as sleight-of-hand in keeping with the magic. When laying a clue, she'll always provide some element to point the reader's attention in an opposite direction...and there's quite a bag of tricks for doing that.

    I also love how you've broken down different ways of providing a twist as this is something I struggle with in my own writing. I'm going to take out my WIP and look at it with your analysis in front.

    Thanks so much!

  2. Thanks for answering my question! And I love literary distraction! As SP says, you dress up something to look like one thing, but it really means something different. Great post!

  3. What a great list of techniques! I will have to try some of these. Thanks for sharing them, Elizabeth!

  4. *waves to Elizabeth*

    This post is packed with great tips, like using distractions. I'd never thought of that before! This all reminds me of The Sixth Sense. When the ending came, the audience was shocked. But the clues had been there all the time. Awesome.

    Thanks Lisa & Elizabeth!

  5. What a fabulous post Elizabeth! It's so full of great stuff that I'm going to have to bookmark it for later reference. Thank you!

  6. SP Sipal--Thanks!

    That's a great way of putting it--sleight of hand. It's very much a smoke and mirrors trick, but still falls in the "fair" category that's so important with mystery writing.

    I'm not much of a plotter, but I will plot a little for twists. Although really, we can go back in after the first draft, even, and lay the clues to the twist and change the ending.

    Susan--Thanks for asking the question! As a mystery writer, I use distraction several times in my books. It's really amazing how well it works.

    Adrienne--Hope you'll enjoy using them. :)

    Hi Julie! 6th Sense is a great twist movie, and exactly for the reason you're mentioning. Distraction is easy to do, but the reader tends to just sort of ignore that they've been diverted...maybe because there are so many distractions in our everyday life!

    Heather--Thanks so much for coming by, Heather!

  7. Wonderful advice! Thank you so much for tackling my question!

  8. Smart move, Lisa!! :) And great post Elizabeth - lots of great ways to include those clues!

  9. Cynthia--Thanks for asking it! And thanks for coming by today. :)

    Jemi--I really love the clue-laying. It makes me feel like a jigsaw puzzle designer!

  10. Lisa - Nice to "meet" you and thanks for hosting Elizabeth.

    Elizabeth - What great ideas for making sure that we keep readers informed without giving everything away. As you say, it's tricky. I remember one Agatha Christie novel where a key clue is a character's physical mannerisms, but every time they're mentioned, it's in the context of discussing other suspects, the murder itself, etc., so if one doesn't pick up on it, one misses it easily.

  11. I wonder if writing a story backwards would help make twists and revelations more believable?

  12. The surprise identity sounds like the easiest, although I'm sure nothing about writing a mystery is easy.

  13. Great post, Elizabeth! Points to keep in mind as I polish my WIP.

  14. Great post, Elizabeth! Points to keep in mind as I polish my WIP.

  15. Margot--Oh, good point. So we can divert even by supplying the information, but make our readers put that info in a completely different context.

    Diane--That might be a cool thing to try. Sometimes when I write out of order I get confused, but if I went backwards straight through, it mgiht be easier.

    Alex--Actually, I think the structure of mysteries makes them very easy to write. I'd love to see an Alex Cavanaugh mystery!

    Kathleen--Good luck with it!

  16. I love the whole puzzle aspect of putting these tidbits together. It makes me want to try writing a mystery.

  17. Leslie--It's really a lot of fun. Hope you'll try!

  18. This is very helpful, as I'm going to eventually get to writing my mystery series.

    Plot twists are usually a no-brainer for me... they just come to me during the writing.

    The clues are where I have to have help, and this definitely helps me a lot.

    Thank you for posting this!

  19. Whoa, this IS good. *drools over keyboard*

  20. Lorelei--Glad it helped.:) Good luck with your mystery!


  21. Hi, Lisa, thanks for hosting.

    Elizabeth, to me the bottom line is you need to be true to your reader. I love surprising, but the writer must be fair. Great advice!

  22. I've got a situation where I need at the end for the reader to understand that the whole story took place in an alternate timeline, but the narrator doesn't know this; she thinks she went back in time and didn't affect the timeline. I'm working on the end to make this more obvious, but it's during the story that I wonder how to sprinkle in clues without tipping off the reader too much... This isn't a mystery, but a time-travel romance. I thought of her saying some things about the future that differ from ours, but then I worry the reader will just think I'm a moron and got my facts wrong.

  23. Now I know more about the art of clues and twists. Thanks for having Elizabeth over, Lisa.

  24. Hi Lisa; thank you for hosting Elizabeth, one of my favourite bloggers.

    I love scattering clues while making the reader believe they are not significant, and the unreliable narrator is another favourite of mine.

  25. These are fantastic tips -- I'm in the middle of working out how to lay down clues right now, and it's proving tricky. Thank you!

  26. You've put this so well. These are the most important tricks of the trade of a good mystery writer. I love books with an unreliable narrator. This is so important: "we can’t write mysteries where the sleuth is privy to information that we don’t provide the readers." Nothing turns me off more than a writer who "cheats" and doesn't tell us what the sleuth has figured it out. Beginning writers will sometimes try to create tension by witholding information. Very big no-no. Thanks for the great tips.

  27. Wonderful tips and explanations. Thank you!

    Personally, I love the "unreliable narrator" method. I find I'm drawn to protagonists who mean well, but end up not doing what they say they are going to do, causing more chaos in the meantime. (For example, promising to stay out of trouble, but then jumping in to "fix" something and adding a new layer to the adventure.)

  28. How did I miss this? These answers are awesome! Thanks Lisa and Elizabeth!

  29. Thanks for great questions and answers!