We readers (and writers) who salivate over mystery and suspense novels tend to have a taste for the hunt—the pursuit of clues concealed in the forest of the story. Let’s expose some of these devious critters to see how the trail of clues works in our stories to help readers (and sometimes misdirect them) in unmasking the villain.
When clues are well laid out, by the time all is revealed in the final pages readers should be slapping their foreheads and saying, “I should have known!” If the solution pops out of nowhere or in a contrived fashion without an adequate trail of clues, readers are left saying, “Huh? Where did that come from?” It’s crucial for the reader feel that the writer has “played fair” with them so that they can look back in the storyline and exclaim, “Ahah! That makes sense.” Needless to say, this takes some finesse from us authors!
Mystery and suspense writers work with a number of key elements in developing and laying out clues for readers. I must confess that we consciously insert some red herrings among the real clues. A bit like magicians, we practice the art of misdirection, which ironically increases the fun for reader and writer alike.
Some clues are physical. These clues are objectively observable and quantifiable in the natural realm. This sort of clue might be anything from footprints or a blood trail to DNA or fingerprints.
Some clues are verbal. Dialogue between characters is essential in providing clues about guilt or innocence. It’s also entertaining to have a character say something that turns out to be vital to the solution, but the character herself had no idea of the clue’s importance. In fact, this is fairly common. An innocent remark from one character about how much another character (who turns out to be the culprit) loves grape jelly could turn out to be the clue that unmasks the villain!
Some clues are obvious—like the strand of pearls clutched in the victim’s fist. Some are subtle, and their significance doesn’t become clear until later. Some clues may appear obvious, but turn out to be irrelevant. Say, perhaps, there is the edge of a shoe print in the blood around the victim, but it comes out later that one of the suspects discovered the body, but because of a secret not connected with the murder, left the scene without reporting it.
One thing you might notice in mystery and suspense novels, most characters in the story—even the ones innocent of murder—have a secret that makes them behave suspiciously. This is one lovely way we writers scatter seeds of misdirection throughout the story.
Or conversely, another way that we can misdirect is by having the culprit behave heroically in some way during the course of the story, or we might create sympathy for the culprit by having them appear to be an underdog or a victim in some way. At times, the culprit actually arranges for themselves to appear a victim in order to throw the authorities or the sleuths off the trail. We writers entice our readers to like the villain or sympathize with them (but not too much) so that we throw them off the scent. Interestingly enough, the guilty in real life are often quite likeable or quite pitiable, which helps make this plot ploy reasonable and believable to readers.
Please share with us an example from your recent reading of a clue that the writer supplied that either threw you off the scent of the culprit (a red herring) or clue that struck you as particularly effective in creating that “Ahah!” moment at the end of the story. Everyone who shares will be entered in a drawing to win a copy of my most recent release, Betrayal on the Border.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Former army communications specialist Maddie Jerrard may not remember the details of the deadly mission on the Texas-Mexico border, but she knows one thing. She's not the one responsible for the massive ambush that left only her and investigative journalist Chris Mason alive. The culprit must be the only other survivor—Chris. Yet with suspicion—and danger—targeting Maddie and Chris, and a killer on their trail, partnering up is the only solution. But as Maddie and Chris get closer to uncovering the truth, they'll have to trust each other to make it through alive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Award-winning author and writing teacher, Jill Elizabeth Nelson, writes what she likes to read—tales of adventure seasoned with romance, humor, and faith. Jill is a popular speaker for conferences, writers groups, library associations, civic and church groups. She delights to bring the “Ahah! Moment” to students as they make new skills their own. Her handbook for writers, Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, is now available at http://amzn.to/IvQTkj. Visit Jill on the web at: www.jillelizabethnelson.com or look her up on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JillElizabethNelson.Author or Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/JillElizNelson. Her latest release is Betrayal on the Border from Love Inspired Romantic Suspense.