Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Planting Clues and Red Herrings in a Mystery Novel

Mysteries are highly structured books. It is to the author’s advantage to know the outcome of the book by making a plot outline and sticking to it. It is much easier to plant clues and red herrings if the author knows ahead of time “whodunit”. If the writer doesn't know the outcome of the book, or changes his mind about the perpetrator of the crime, he will have to go back and plant or change the clues after the book is finished. This can be a very wearisome job. It is much better for a writer to know where the book is going from the start.

How to Plant Mystery Novel Clues
A medium-sized novel needs at least 3-4 real clues. At least two of the clues should be strong ones, and one should be very strong. A typical mystery should also contain about three red herrings. These clues should be distributed fairly evenly throughout the book. Clues should build up so that the strongest clue is toward the middle-end of the book.

The planting of clues requires skill and planning. Clues should never be too obvious. They should lead a subtle path to the villain, but be interspersed by red herrings so the reader will not easily guess the outcome.
How to Plant Red Herrings
Red herrings were used in 15th century England to train hunting dogs. A red herring (a very pungent fish) was drawn along the trail to distract the dog. The dog was trained to follow the original scent of fox or badger instead of the stronger scent of the fish. The term eventually came to be known as something that distracts attention from the real issue.

The red herring’s purpose in a mystery is to distract the reader from what is really going on by introducing false or misleading evidence. For example, a woman’s fingerprints might be found at a murder scene, causing her to be a suspect. A neighbor might have seen a suspicious car drive past. Neither of these events may have anything to do with the actual crime.

Tying Up The Ending
By the end of the book each red herrings should be adequately explained. Why were the woman’s fingerprints at the scene? Perhaps she had visited the murder victim shortly before the murder or had come in after the murder, left fingerprints on the scene, then ran away in fear. The car might have belonged to a neighbor who planned to drop by, then changed her mind, and didn’t know about the murder.
If the author has done his job right, the reader will not be able to guess the villain. But by the end of the book the clever reader should be able to go back and trace the clues that were provided, snap their fingers, and say, “I should have known all along!"