Mystery and Suspense
Get a Clue:
Using Clues to
Map Your Mystery
2002, Rob Flumignan
Probably the toughest part about writing a mystery
comes when youíve got three hundred or so pages stacked up and itís time to
tie all the ends together and reveal "whodunit." Though there really isnít any easy way to tackle the unique
and complex mystery form, there is a way to make the process slightly less like
performing brain surgery with a pair of crochet needles.
Rather than dash willy-nilly through a first draft,
praying to Edgar Allen Poe that your sleuth can piece together some clues and
convincingly prove the butler did it, I suggest making sure you have the right
clues to begin with. Like sign
posts, clues can guide you through the complex journey of your mystery novel and
make sure you reach the end without getting lost.
Yet traveling from sign to sign is not enough.
You must make sure the signs you read (or plot) lead to your destination.
In other words, before you figure out your sign posts (clues) you should
decide where you're going first.
My advice is to...
Start By Killing Someone
If you are writing a murder mystery, the killer and
victim are probably the two most important characters in the novel.
Some believe the sleuth is number one, but a sleuth without a murder is
like a Happy Meal without a toy.
You can start with either victim or killer.
Just make sure you create real and vivid people.
Many a mystery is ruined by paper-thin villains and transparent victims.
I won't go into detail on creating victim and
killer since that would end up a whole article in itself.
For now, realize that these characters are the fuel for our journey;
they're what keeps the mystery story humming.
They also determine your beginning and end. A mystery starts with a murder and ends when the killer is
Ask questions, fleshing out your killer and victim.
Who, what, where, when, and (all important in the mystery) why?
Don't forget how, either. Pay
particular attention to the relationship between these characters.
Mysteries are often about revealing hidden connections between
Selecting A Sleuth
If killer and victim make up the fuel for your
murder mystery, the sleuth is your engine.
He or she is what drives the story forward, carrying the reader along to
the climax and revelation of the killer. Our
You might already have an idea of the character you
want to use as a sleuth, perhaps with plans of making a series for him or her.
If you don't, that's okay. What's
good about the mystery's holy trinity (Sleuth, Killer, Victim) is that
developing one often leads to ideas for the others.
Remember how I suggested looking for connections between killer and
victim? Now it's time to create connections between the sleuth and
the killer or victim (or both).
You canít just have your character watching TV,
see a murder case covered on the news and decide, oh, I think Iíll go and
investigate. No oneís going to
buy that. And it wonít make for a
dramatic story. If youíre doing
the series detective, this connection-making will be a bit harder, but itís
twice as important in order to keep things believable.
The connection between your victim and sleuth
might, however, be more personal than professional.
In Harlan Coben's fantastic thriller, Tell No One (Dell
Pub Co; ISBN: 0440236703)the victim is his beloved wife. In my last novel, Crystal Past, the victim is the main
character's estranged ex-girlfriend as well as the one who helped him kick his
drug habit. She's a symbol of
innocence to him and when he finds out she's been killed while apparently
turning tricks in downtown Detroit, he can't help but seek the truth behind her
Keep in mind when I say "connection"
Iím not talking only about blood relationships or even casual acquaintance.
There just has to be something that pulls killer, victim, and sleuth
together. With the sleuth, it can
be a client if he or she is a pro detective.
But then you must think of ways to motivate your detective to take that
particular case. This is part of
creating a moving and original mystery. Finding
clever ways to connect the power-players of your story will lead you to creative
ideas and tight drama. Then, once
youíve made these connections, youíre ready to start laying out some clues.
Before going into how to use clues to plot your
mystery, I'd like to take a moment to discuss the different kinds of clues you
may use. I've tried to split them
into three categories, though in many cases they overlap.
These are the other main characters in your story.
In the mystery, everyone is a suspect to the reader, even if you donít
mean them to be. Often times your
sleuthís best friend will be the reader's first suspect.
Unless yours is another installment in an established series, the mystery
reader wonít trust anyone in your cast. This
is a good thing if you use it to your advantage, leading to some sneaky red
herrings (discussed later).
Suspects are going to give you the most meat for
your story in terms of plot. A lot
of a mystery is the sleuthís meeting with suspects and trying to weasel
information out of them. Give every
suspect a secret to hide and youíre in for some good conflict and plenty of
Come up with a cast-list of suspects.
Work out your connections with this list.
Who hated the victim? Who
loved the victim? Whom did the
victim love and hate? Try to link
everyone in some way, and give most everyone a reason to kill the victim.
Use your killer as a guide in creating your
suspects. Find places where the
killer might look innocent, then make a suspect look guilty in that way.
For example, if your killer stands to gain nothing monetarily from the
victim's death, make a suspect the primary beneficiary of the victim's $100,000
life insurance policy.
Once youíve got a suspect line-up you can start
thinking about scenes to introduce them and have them meet with your sleuth.
Concentrate on how those encounters establish connections or reveal
crucial information. Forget about sub-plot material for now.
While a great number of your clues will present
themselves as such when your sleuth (and reader) finds them, there are other
kinds of clues that appear quite useless when first encountered.
I call these subliminal plants. The
writer knows their clues, but the sleuth and reader do not.
Not yet, at least.
These are very important when it comes to keeping
the mystery unsolved until the end, yet still providing a believable climax when
it comes. This is the innocuous
detail you stick in with a number of other things so the reader reads right past
without suspecting the item's importance. The
butcher block with the missing blade. Or
the dog that didn't bark. Sprinkle
these throughout and then use a reversal where the sleuth remembers all these
plants and puts the puzzle together.
The trick with subliminal plants is that many of
them get mixed up with red herrings. Your
reader will have to pay very close attention to every little item or bit of
dialogue you drop into your story. Many
of these clues will lead to the killer, but many more will lead both sleuth and
A staple of every mystery novel is the red herring.
The only difference between a red herring and a regular clue is the red
herring points away from the killer, not toward him or her.
Red herrings are important in that they keep the murder from being solved
too easily, creating a great amount of plot when your sleuth wanders into blind
However, if you're plotting your mystery with
clues, it's important to get your real clues down first.
Chart a clue path straight from murder to revelation.
Then, after that's done, and you're certain your crime actually can be
solved, start twisting the plot with red herrings.
Use your real clues as guides. If
you know that Colonel Mustard did it with the lead pipe in the library, make
sure Professor Plumb was seen with the lead pipe in the ballroom.
Mapping The Journey
We've got our fuel (killer + victim) and our engine
(the sleuth). We also formed an
idea about our destination when we developed our killer.
Now, with an idea of the kinds of clues available, it's time to chart the
journey. Remember, the clues are
the signposts along the road. They
will guide us from the beginning, where the murder is committed, to the end,
where the killer is revealed.
First, think of your destination. Imagine your sleuth revealing the killer, the climax where it
all goes down and justice is done. Our
goal is to trace back from the end what elements need to be present in order for
your sleuth to make that revelation. How
does the sleuth realize the truth? Work
backward. What is the last thing
the sleuth discovers that changes his or her mind about everything he believed
Take another step back from there. What led the sleuth to go to that last piece of evidence?
Something someone said? An
object found? Keep working backward until you get stuck.
Now skip around.
Brainstorm by clustering or jotting quick lists off the top of your head,
just trying to come up with clues that will lead the sleuth to the truth.
Try looking at the beginning, the crime scene.
Will your sleuth have access to the crime scene?
What bits of evidence can you plant around the body that can come into
Another tool you might want to consider are
reversals. Big ones.
Say your sleuth starts the story believing one theory and traces clues
along those lines until, bam, she discovers something that wipes out
everything she believed to be true up until then. Now she follows a different direction, until something else
spins her around and she again must reevaluate what she thinks she knows about
You can use these reversals to anchor the main
story line, splitting your story into manageable sections.
Use these sections to group smaller clues in between, each clue leading
to the next reversal. Work from
large to small. Macro to micro.
I suggested clustering.
You might also want to try using index cards with a clue per card, and
perhaps a different color card for red herrings and suspects. You could do this on your word processor as well.
Or, if you've been doing this a while, the work could go on in your head.
The point is, churn out a lot of material before making any strict
decisions. Then you'll have all the
more to work with and won't get those constipated moments where you just can't
decide what to plot next.
Keep going back to your killer, victim, and sleuth
when generating clues. Focus on the
real clues. The red herrings can
wait for now. Shuffle the clues
around; think of where you'll put them. If
they're suspects, figure out how and when you're sleuth will meet them and what
information they'll get out of them. Also
decide if your sleuth will recognize certain information as a clue right away.
If not, when and how will the sleuth realize it is a clue?
Look at any subliminal plants you have.
You've probably used a few already when working with your suspects.
Again, ask yourself: where does this clue go, how does the sleuth
encounter it, and when does he realize it's a clue?
Remember cause and effect.
One clue should lead to another.
With that in mind, bring out those red herrings.
How and where will the sleuth uncover these?
How will she interpret them (wrongly)?
Can you use these red herrings to push the sleuth toward another clue or
See how this works?
In the special form of the mystery, you have to go
beyond the simple scene-to-scene progression of a story. You have to go from clue to clue. What you should be doing now is imagining scenes where these
clues are found and how they affect the storyline and where they place the
sleuth in relation to the climax and revelation. If you think in terms of clues, suspects, and red herrings,
you'll simultaneously be plotting the novel.
Pretty soon you'll have the skeleton of your story, and you won't have to
worry, when it comes time to reveal the killer, that the evidence is there to
back up your sleuth.
Other Plot Considerations
The core murder plot isn't going to be your only
plot. You'll probably want to
consider sub-plots. Perhaps a love
interest for your sleuth, or maybe an internal struggle your sleuth must
overcome. But that will all come a
lot easier now that you have the mystery plotted.
At this point you might even want to wing your subplots, improvising them
as you go along. No matter what,
you'll know the mystery part (the really tricky part) of your story is solid and
That's the beauty of the mystery story.
As long as you have that underlying plot structure, you can add whatever
meat you want. In Crystal Past
I have everything from the forming of a new friendship to the reconciliation of
a son and mother, as well as my main character's struggle against his own
self-destructive nature, and his coming to terms with past mistakes.
The whodunit structure can hold all the themes and
conflicts you want, while at the same time giving the reader a unique and moving
experience in the shape of a tried and true story form.
So get a clue--get a whole bunch of them--and start
plotting your mystery.