Almost every crime novel has at least two interconnected central mysteries – Who is the murderer and Why was the victim killed? But good crime novels set up multiple layers of intrigue, a range of questions that demand answers.
When I’m planning a crime novel, I start by asking myself all the questions I can think of – concerning the central plot, characters, sub-plots and more – and jotting down the answers. The more questions I can raise, the better opportunity I have of crafting a crime novel that keeps readers guessing. Remember, many readers love crime fiction because it appeals to their intellectual vanity. They want to lock horns with you and see if they can work out the answers before you reveal them. But you have to be fair. You can confuse your reader, you can lead them down dead ends, but what you cannot do is cheat. If you set up a trail of clues then the reader, on second read, should be able to point to them and say: Damn! I could have arrived at the correct answer.
The trick is to put yourself in your readers’ shoes. At any point in time, they will be coming up with their own theories in response to the questions you’ve raised, based on the evidence you’ve provided so far. Your aim should be to guide them towards one hypothesis, only to then pull the rug out from under them. It often helps to write out the conclusions you want readers to arrive at, and then work backwards to place the trail of clues that lead there.
Types of Clues
Clues come in all shapes and sizes. When planning a book, I divide my clues into three types, before deciding how to use them:
1. Physical Clues: These are clues related to evidence. So they would include forensic evidence: fingerprints, DNA, surveillance footage, telephone logs. Also included here would be information gleaned from the autopsy.
2. Verbal Clues: These are clues presented to us through interviews conducted by our investigator or remarks overhead or made by the victim or other characters in your book. This is a particularly important technique in police procedurals where the interview and interrogation processes are formalised as part of the investigation.
3. Circumstantial: These are clues tangentially related to the investigation, usually physical clues that hint at something, but make no definite statements.
Foreshadowing is an important technique that you can use to mentally prepare your readers, directly raising the questions that you want them to think about. Essentially you show something seemingly inconsequential now that later leads to a lightbulb moment. For example, a prologue can provide a really good means for foreshadowing, showing a scene that’s apparently disconnected to the main story – but hinting at something to follow …
Every crime writer understands that they will be required to place red herrings into their narrative – clues deliberately intended to lead the reader down a false path. Seasoned crime readers will be expecting red herrings, so the challenge for you is to use them judiciously and with intelligence. Don’t make them clumsily obvious. When done properly, readers will be surprised by the misdirection, and will have learned something useful along the way. It’s also important to make sure your red herrings are plausible. An example of a good red herring is when you provide a seemingly credible alibi for the real murderer, leading your readers to discount that individual as a suspect.
How to use clues
Here are a few strategies you can use to ensure that your clues achieve the objectives you want:
- Emphasis: Emphasising a red herring can help distract from the real clue. Your investigator can become obsessed with what turns out to be a dead end, while dismissing another important clue early on. Later on, a re-evaluation sets your protagonist on the right path.
- Misinterpretation: Allow your investigator to misinterpret a clue. This not only sets up a false trail, but demonstrates vulnerability in your lead character. All detectives are human. As a consequence, they will make mistakes. It’s part of what endears them to us.
- Breaking it up: Fragment your clues, if possible. I think of this technique as breaking up an expensive vase and then hiding the pieces at different places in your narrative. So instead of showing the whole clue in one go you can reveal it in stages. Internet records are a good example. Make your detective work for those records. Stage one: your detective realises they need them. Stage two: they have to ask for them via official channels. Stage three: they have to wait for an analyst to properly interpret them. These different stages of the same clue become a thread woven into the narrative, leading up to a revelation – or indeed to a red herring.
To find out more about how to construct the perfect crime, layer it in mystery and suspense, set a trail of compelling clues and develop a memorable detective to investigate – join my brand new six-week online Writing Crime Fiction course, starting Thursday 7 October.