This week: Three Types of CluesEdited by: Lonewolf
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People read mysteries for many reasons. One of the most common is the chance to match wits with a detective, to solve the crime or at least nod with appreciation when the answer is unveiled.
Clues are the way you dance with readers, alternately pulling them closer to the truth and spinning them out to the dizzy edge. Keep readers on their toes, keep them guessing. They'll love you for it.
The Magic of Misdirection
Like a magician, writers of mysteries must mislead the audience while fulfilling expectations of entertainment and surprise. There is one large difference between the two arts, however. Readers want to end the show knowing they could have solved the trick if only they had paid more attention to [enter major clue here]. It is the writer's job to make sure they don't.
Magicians on a stage work within a closed environment. Audiences see the props and magicians "prove" that there are no hidden devices. A story is not a closed environment. The writer can theoretically bring anything onto the stage at a moment's notice just by writing the words. "Here comes the stealth helicopter lowering a basket. Look, I just allowed my hero to disappear."
Because this is possible, it isn't really allowed. Devices and clues should appear and be visible before they play their part. If you want a stealth helicopter to arrive and rescue your main character, you want to plant the possibility of that occurring earlier in the story. If the killer is arrested because of a fingerprint lifted from a shell casing, you want to mention the discovery of a shell casing if not describe the actual lifting of the print. If a shotgun is fired in the third act, you want to show the gun hanging over the fireplace in the first. If you place a shotgun in the first act, you must have it fired by the third. The reader should see the wires and mirrors but not recognize their significance. This is how the writer plays fair.
Magicians banter with the audience and mumble incantations. This buys them enough time to slip the key out of the hidden pocket but more importantly, it focuses audience attention. Misdirection is also the mystery writer's best friend.
Let's say you need that stealth helicopter to rescue your hero and you don't want the reader to be disgusted when it drops in with no advance warning. How do you mention the helicopter earlier and still let the reader sweat the character's situation?
There are three types of clues: 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, and 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 confuses 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 which 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.
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