12.17.2020

Seeding Clues

An author may write a book containing mystery elements without intending to focus primarily on the protagonist solving clues. The desire may trend more toward exploring the characters or to creating the atmosphere of a locale. This main pursuit may become so extensive that the book’s suspects and clues are strewn in a sporadic fashion. That may not prove to be the best strategy if the climax of the book features the typical mystery showdown. The reader had no chance to guess whodunit, so how could they have known the story would end this way?

Let’s say the writer comes to that realization only after writing a first draft. Now what are they supposed to do? They have an entire novel that works pretty well the way it is. Does the edifice have to be torn apart in order to create new plot threads whereby the reader can guess?

No, and here’s why. The story already contains a wealth of rich characters, and any character can be a suspect if viewed a certain way. What can be changed to alter the protagonist’s perception?

The first is hidden biographical information. Of course, the reason it is hidden right now is because you haven’t thought of it yet. So you take an unlikable character, and on page 100, say, your hero finds out he served in the special forces in Iraq. Or, since many of us commit minor crimes during adolescence, we find out she was busted for assaulting a police officer during a protest. If you have decided that you will feature primarily three suspects, give one of them a chilling past.

The second is a link to an unsavory activity. The most common is to drugs. This is a wide sphere, ranging from the pothead down the hall in your college dormitory to a ruthless killer for a Mexican drug cartel. Yet association with any aspect of it casts suspicion, because it is (largely) illegal. You could also choose largely innocent trades such as gun sales, casinos, or company finances, including the financial books of a country store.

Once you have decided on a list of clues, you can then insert them in existing scenes. In a gossip session that dwells on an unwitting maverick in a garden club, you drop in an unsavory link. Oh, you didn’t know that about her? Or you insert a “helpful” neighbor who sidles over to say what he personally “witnessed” the night of the crime. Pretty soon you have dotted the manuscript with hooks on which a reader can hang a case.

Exercise: The impulse when making such an insertion is to drop in a sentence. Yet that usually isn’t enough. The clue feels gratuitous, or the reader doesn’t grasp the import because it is so minor in the mise en scène you’ve created otherwise. In general, when you have mentions that are off-topic, you will find that 2-3 sentences will blend in more naturally.

“I like villains because there's something so attractive about a committed person—they have a plan, an ideology, no matter how twisted. They're motivated.”          —Russell Crowe

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.