Using Multiple Guessers

For those who are not gifted at plotting mysteries, other strategies for laying crumbs for readers have to be employed. One that works well relies on multiplying the number of characters involved in investigating a crime. The advantages stem from having different opinions about the same number of clues.

In order to make it work, you first should get in the habit of “thinking” from different characters’ points of view. Let’s say Cal is intuitive but impractical. His partner in sleuthing is Lenora, who is rational and down-to-earth. Maybe a third member of the crew, Lee, is good at intellectual puzzles. Now pick out a clue: say, a red rose pinned to a victim’s lapel. You can plot out three different interpretations of one clue, and until more clues are available, all of them will seem valid to the reader. 

The next step is relating the clue to known suspects. Let’s say Malcolm is strung up on a balcony rail overlooking the foyer. Cal may guess that the murderer must be the homeowner Sandy, since he heard a violent argument between them recently. Yet Lenora points out that whoever strung up Malcolm must be strong, and Sandy weighs only 110 pounds, 50 pounds lighter than her supposed victim. At the same time, Lee weighs in with the observation that the rope is a special nylon type associated with sailing, and Malcolm’s good friend Trent is always bragging about his boat. How is the reader supposed to settle, for sure, on any of these choices?

Even better, you may choose a suspect that has a personal relationship with one or more of your sleuths. If Cal intensely dislikes May, he may slant his interpretations of the clues so they fit May. Yet Lenora may sensibly point out the faults in Cal’s reasoning, knowing full well his dislike. You can then calibrate a third response because Lee views May more of a psychological specimen than a person. Depending on who is the protagonist, you can assign more weight of suspicion to May, but the other characters’ objections still need to be noted by the guessing reader. 

As the book progresses, you can then play off one character’s worth in guessing against another. Because Cal seems to use his heart rather than his head, the pendulum may swing toward Lenora, who is always so logical in her conclusions. Lee may start to fall by the wayside because the intellectual nattering doesn’t really address a motive behind the clues. Now their opinions are weighted by how you have developed the novel—and still, any of the three of them might be right.

Exercise: Repetition is the curse of any novel. When you are judging each clue, bear in mind that you want a character’s take on it to be fresh. So maybe mix it up: Cal comes up with an intellectual interpretation, or Lenora uses logic to make an intuitive leap. As long as the character can explain the deviation to the reader, you won’t repeat yourself.

“People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.