64. How to Hide Clues in Mystery Stories

Author: Nola Published: 3 months ago.
Tags: twists, misdirection, mysteries, clues Category: Writing tips

I love a good mystery. A quick flick through my DVD collection and you’ll find box sets of Murdoch Mysteries, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Murder She Wrote, Columbo and Sherlock. The stories created in those programs take us around the globe and span more than a century, but they have one thing in common—a brilliant sleuth who finds carefully hidden clues and then pieces them together for the big reveal.

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, whodunit, 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.

1. Embed clues in the action or emotion of another scene. While your reader is focusing on the main action, they might miss what’s going on at the peripheries. Please see last week’s post on plot twists for a good example of this.

2. Include a clue that could be interpreted in different ways. Suspense writer Jeffery Deaver uses this to great effect in his short story Chapter and Verse. (Spoiler alert) A detective gets a note from an informant that says, ‘He’s on his way. Look out. Luke, twelve, fifteen.’ Thinking ‘Luke, twelve, fifteen’ is a Bible verse, the detective consults a church minister, but the message turns out to mean something different altogether. If you’d like to see how it turns out, you can find the story in Deaver’s collection More Twisted.

3. Use in-jokes, puns or word play that contain some truth. The advantage of this technique is that readers may think it’s just a joke and not consider the deeper meaning. (Spoiler alert) In the Father Brown episode Theatre of the Invisible, a man says that he’s sure another character and his date will get on like a house on fire. We learn later that the first man knew the other had sabotaged a fireplace so a room would fill with smoke. The cantankerous landlady subsequently dies of smoke inhalation and now there’s a pesky witness to eliminate. What happens next? Well if you hurry, you can catch the episode on iview.

4. Mess with the timeline. Time is often a clue in itself (e.g. the time of the murder, alibi timelines, the length of time it takes to travel from A to B, the dog that barked just as the 9.00 o’clock news was starting). Try creating a problem with time that isn’t unearthed until a critical moment. (Spoiler alert) In the Jonathan Creek episode Miracle in Crooked Lane, former missionary Kathleen is recuperating at her friend Vincent’s house following a heart operation. She chats to a glamorous neighbour one evening and sees that it’s about 7.30 by the clock on the church tower. She also notices that the bottoms of her neighbour’s trouser legs are damp. The only problem is that the neighbour was supposedly seriously injured in an explosion hours before and couldn’t have appeared to Kathleen that evening without a scratch. It turns out that Vincent was using an elaborate series of tricks to make Kathleen think it was evening when it was actually morning. That way, she would be able to provide him with an alibi for the murder of his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. The church clock indicated 7.30 am not pm and the dampness on the neighbour’s trouser legs was caused by morning dew. Thus, Kathleen saw her several hours before the explosion, not after. Confusing? Not for Jonathan Creek. Find out more here.

It takes practice and skill to pull off a hidden clue that leaves the reader in awe rather than cranky with the author. Why not try writing a scene using one or more of these suggestions? Do you have a favourite clue from a novel, movie or TV show? I’d love to hear your examples, but be sure to give a spoiler alert if necessary. ___

For Further Reading

Curteman, Nancy. (2011). Clues: The building blocks of a mystery novel.

Ephron, Hallie. (2016). Writing and selling your mystery novel (rev. ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books.

Snyckers, Fiona. (2017). Hiding clues in a murder mystery novel.

(N.B. Some of the ideas in this post came from these articles, but the examples are original.)

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