Mystery Clues That Satisfy

The mystery/suspense bookcase is crowded with puzzles that readers love to solve. What makes these stand out from the hundreds of books written every year that remain unpublished? One element is the unique nature of the clues. While they separate the classic mysteries from the pack, they also aid a tale focused more on its suspense component.

Humdrum clues can make a manuscript less special altogether. The reason usually stems from the origin of an author’s impulse to write. He may be more interested in action, or she is more interested in personalities. Yet the deficiency emerges glaringly by the end of the draft. The action is good, yes, and the characters are fun. But why does the plot seem so ordinary?

The author may want to examine the physical evidence that provides the trail of clues. A professional writer knows that ambiguity and research are vital tools in her craft. You just need to take the time required to be fiendish.

Authors that research a topic can devise true puzzles to solve. Think of the wide variety of delightful connections made by Sherlock Holmes. Given a bell rope, odd hissing, and a victim’s dying words, “the speckled band,” Holmes deduces that a deadly snake from India (Britain’s largest colony in those days) was the agent of death. Research about an exotic creature from a faraway land ended devising a British bedroom murder.

More complex examples include an encrypted code, such as the cryptex used in The Da Vinci Code. Such clues entail specialized knowledge to solve, and thus the reader is taken into a little-known realm that is intriguing to read about. Yet one of the reasons for the book’s popularity is that Dan Brown uses famous realms to explore. One of the means to solve the clues is knowledge of Leonardo da Vinci and another is an encryption method used in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Research into clues provides not only a fascinating trail of crumbs, however. It governs the plotting as a whole. This orientation is not clear to many readers, because the book’s investigator discovers only one link at a time. As a reader you enter a book looking for a lead character or a few that will lead you through the proceedings. But all of those steps must be devised beforehand. Your research literally determines the lie of the land.

Exercise: Research by itself is an amorphous blob. Once you discover an unusual field of research, you need to devise a concept. That makes you an active explorer: when you read about unusual facts, you assign them as different clues that are revealed at specific times. If you draw up a long list, you can then actively assign them to characters as they emerge in the story.

“Mysteries abound where most we seek for answers.”
—Ray Bradbury

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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