This week: Hiding CluesEdited by: Lilli Munster ☕
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There’s an art to hiding clues. If you give away too much too easily, you could pop the reader’s balloon before it’s had a chance to fly. If you’re too obtuse or withhold information, the reader may feel tricked or cheated when the murderer turns out to be the flamboyant florist who was only mentioned fleetingly on page five. Whether you’re writing a police procedural, whodunnit, thriller, or another genre that incorporates the odd secret or mystery element, you need to know how to bury the bodies … er … clues.
Here are some tips to make sure those clues stay in the ground until it’s time to dig them up.
Clues serve two distinct functions. They lead the reader to the solution and they mislead the reader away from the solution. They've very versatile.
Three Types of Clues
For the sake of discussion, let’s break clues into three types: physical, verbal, and thematic.
Physical clues range from fingerprints to DNA analysis. The detective can repeatedly examine the scene of the crime, sort through the personal items, review the photographs. Decoding physical clues is a scientific process reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes and forensic pathologists.
Verbal clues come from dialogue between characters. What is said and not said? Who knew what only the killer would know or left out some crucial detail? Decoding verbal clues is a psychological/sociological process reminiscent of Miss Marple and private detectives.
Thematic clues are those pointers that arise from the experience of reading. The person dressed in black is the villain. The stormy night signals danger. Depending on the times, the butler is invisible, guilty, or innocent simply by being the butler.
While the first two types of clues will influence the detective, all three will affect the reader's experience of the story.
Clues enlighten readers and clues confuse them.
Time for another division of the general clue: immediate clues and future clues.
A single shoe is misplaced in the closet. This is an immediate clue that may or may not be noticed by both the detective and the reader when the scene is described.
An autopsy is ordered. The reader cannot learn the results until the detective does.
There is a trade-off. Immediate clues allow the reader to match wits with the detective. Future clues build suspense.
When planting clues, there are a number of tricks you can use.
Clues can have ambiguous meanings. A large footprint implies someone with large feet or a small-footed person wearing large shoes.
Clues can point to several people. A diamond ring can implicate someone who wears diamonds, someone who sells them, or someone who steals them. It could also be a plant.
Clues can be misread. The detective jumps to a wrong conclusion. Will the reader follow?
Clues can unfold. The flat piece of metal discovered on page three makes no sense until its mate is discovered many scenes later.
As if there aren't enough ways to split the clue, here comes another. There are obvious clues and subtle clues.
The button clutched in the dead hand is an obvious clue. No one is going to miss the importance of the object.
The fact that the victim was wearing blue is a subtle one. Perhaps it has a meaning and perhaps it doesn't. Some readers will file away the information and others won't.
All of these clue types can and should be mixed and matched. The complexity of direction and misdirection is limited only by an author's imagination and the length of the manuscript. Whatever level of convolution you can dream up, there is a group of readers looking for that experience.
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