One of the best benefits of reading suspense fiction is that you become an active participant—processing mystery clues, solving puzzles, anticipating outcomes. But as a mystery, suspense, and thriller writer, how can you successfully give this interactive type of experience to your readers?
How do you know which clues and red herrings to plant? How can you integrate them effectively into the story? How do you play fair with the reader—providing all the information they need—without giving away the solution?
This is the mystery writer’s tightrope. And if it’s one you’re walking, this article will help you feel more on solid ground with practical techniques for creating and camouflaging clues and red herrings.
Make It Fun But Fair
Whenever I’m planting a clue in a mystery novel I’m writing, I feel so exposed—like I’m waving a red flag and announcing a clue has been served. Experience has helped lay those fears (mostly) to rest. With skillful weaving into the story, clues and foreshadowing blend in or are seen but soon forgotten by readers.
Without spoonfeeding your audience, you must place all the pieces on the table, allowing readers to actively participate in solving the puzzle. When making your first attempts at writing mystery, it can be difficult to find that balance between too much and too little.
That’s when a community like The Write Practice comes in very handy.
Getting feedback from readers helps you know whether you’re making the clues too obvious or too obscure. With practice, you’ll get a better feel for how to effectively deliver the necessary pieces of information to your reader while misdirecting with red herrings.
This will make the plot fun—but fair.
To write a great mystery story, you can use some key techniques for placing mystery clues that construct a satisfying, suspenseful mystery or thriller.
What is a Mystery Clue?
The word clue derives from the Middle English word “clew,” which was used to describe a ball of thread.
You can remember this by recalling the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur.
The hero, Theseus, set out to slay the beast who lived at the heart of a giant labyrinth. Fearing he wouldn’t be able to find his way out, Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of thread so that he could unwind it along the way, marking the path back to safety.
When we plant clues, we’re unwinding a ball of thread for our readers. If they follow the correct thread, it will lead them out of darkness into the light of the mystery’s solution.
But alas!—our ball contains multiple threads that unravel as they roll out, challenging the reader to know which thread to follow. These wayward threads are red herrings and false clues.
True clues are pieces of information that, if interpreted correctly, allow the reader to crack the case alongside the sleuth, sometimes even beating him to the punch. There are many types of clues, including:
These are objects or material traces, usually found at the crime scene or among the suspects’ possessions. They might include the murder weapon, carpet fibers, soil crumbles, a lost button, a tire track, discarded wrappers, a tube of lipstick, and so on.
These are things the sleuth collects or notices to help him solve the case.
These are organic traces left behind. Things such as fingerprints, a strand of hair, bodily fluids, anything containing DNA or characteristics that can help investigators figure out what happened and whodunit.
This is the kind of thing profilers do—basing the direction of the investigation on clues derived from behavioral indicators.
Skilled profilers can often pinpoint certain characteristics of a perpetrator, like probable age, occupation, socio-economic group, personality type, etc.
Also, an astute detective will understand the psychology of a subject, allowing him to draw certain conclusions.
For instance, in Poe’s story The Purloined Letter, the Prefect of the Parisian police failed to find the letter because he assumed the minister would only hide such an important object in a secret place. Dupin, on the other hand, based his conclusions on his knowledge of the minister’s personality, correctly deducing that the letter would be in plain sight.
This is where alibis come in. Sleuths often create a timeline to account for everyone’s whereabouts during critical moments. This can prove very helpful in solving the crime.
As the case progresses, the sleuth will dig into the background of the suspects, looking into financial records, relationships, past addresses and places of employment—anything that might give them an edge in figuring out what’s going on.
This type of investigation often forms the backbone of a mystery, unearthing connections and motives aplenty.
Clues of omission
This means the absence of a clue where there should be one—when something vital is missing or perhaps out of place.
For example Sherlock Holmes investigates the disappearance of a valuable racehorse in The Adventure of Silver Blaze. Here’s an excerpt:
Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the nighttime.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
This significant exchange shows how Holmes concluded that the horse was stolen by someone known to the dog.
How Do Readers Gather Clues?
During the sleuth’s investigation, clues can be gathered in any way imaginable. Here are some of the standard methods:
The scene of the crime is carefully combed over and every bit of data gleaned that might be useful to solving the crime and bringing the culprit to justice.
As soon as possible after the crime is committed, investigators isolate witnesses and suspects and question them to get as much untainted information as they can. This is fertile ground for lies, misunderstandings, non-verbal cues, and accusations.
As mentioned before, the sleuth will uncover as much information about the suspects’ backstory and current circumstances as they can in order to make sense of the case.
The detective will remain diligently observant through the course of the book, reporting anything noticed, deduced, or suspected to the reader. In most cases, the sleuth will be trying to determine who had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime.
Clues can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. They might include anything that can be taken in through the five senses. Many mysteries also include some kind of impression received through the sixth sense. That can be as direct as consulting a psychic or as intangible as intuition or a gut feeling.
All these can be used as clues, but keep in mind that any might also be a red herring or false clue!
Red Herrings and False Clues
If a clue is something that will lead the sleuth to make a valid conclusion about the means, motive, or opportunity of a suspect, a red herring is something that leads to a conclusion either unrelated to the crime or a distractor from the truth.
Red herrings are designed to lead readers astray.
In her book Write Away, Elizabeth George draws a distinction between red herrings and false clues. She says red herrings are the items writers plant to deceive readers and send them down a false trail.
False clues are fabricated by another character to throw investigators off the scent.
In the end, they come down to the same thing as far as the reader is concerned.
To help you remember, think of this:
The accepted origin of the term “red herring,” comes from long-ago English fox hunters who trained their hounds by dragging a fish several times across the trail. When the dog learned to ignore the scent of the fish and keep to the fox’s trail, he was ready.
It's about leading readers down a false trail, you see? There's one path that leads to the right conclusion, and you drop hints (clues) along the way. Meanwhile, you throw twists and turns to surprise and challenge your reader as they venture forward.
A Crime Scene Scenario
When writing mystery plot, don't cheat the reader.
As mystery writers, we must play fair by presenting all the necessary puzzle pieces to the reader. We cannot hide information—but we can misdirect their attention.
Like an illusionist.
We can make it easier for the reader to find the red herrings and more difficult to spot the indicators that steer in the right direction.
For the sake of illustration, let’s construct a scenario.
Imagine an old farmhouse in the country that’s been portioned into apartments occupied by seven residents. One of them is a retired police detective—we’ll call the main character Spurlock.
Let’s say our victim, Leo, was found bludgeoned to death in a locked room. After the remaining residents break open the door, Spurlock ascertains that all the windows and doors were secured from the inside. Scattered on the floor near Leo’s fallen body are a fork, a book about beekeeping, and a blue rubber band.
No one claims to know how any of them got there.
What seems even more significant—Leo’s prized coin collection is missing, and the item used to club him to death is nowhere to be found.
Now plant some possible clues or red herrings.
The police are called and Spurlock, a former colleague, is kept somewhat in the loop. As the investigation unfolds, we can work in something about how one of the residents, Brenda, has a habit of eating cake in bed and has a store of dirty forks in the drawer of her bedside table.
It’s well-known that Sarah has an interest in bees. She admits the book belongs to her but insists someone must have stolen it from her apartment and left it in Leo’s room.
Another of the suspects, Fred, always carries a deck of cards in his jacket pocket, bound by the very same type of blue rubber band as that which was found at the crime scene. When asked to empty his pockets, the cards are loose, the rubber band missing.
Some of these clues will lead to dead ends, but some point—eventually—to the real solution of Leo’s murder.
Those that don’t still require some sort of explanation. The key to successfully crossing the trail with a red herring is to make sure there’s a logical reason for it to be there.
Perhaps the fork and rubber band were used in some ingenious scheme to lock the door from the inside after the killer left the room.
That’s fine (if you can figure out a plausible way to do that). But the beekeeping book must be explained in some other way.
Perhaps Sarah and Leo were secret lovers and she left the book behind after their last rendezvous. She has reasons for being reluctant to reveal this, and eventually those reasons will come out, though they may have nothing to do with Leo’s murder.
The rubber band seems to point to Fred. But Fred often hangs his jacket on a peg in the entryway. Anyone could have taken that rubber band.
These, along with more clues and red herrings, will figure into the story.
Techniques to Obscure Mystery Clues (and Highlight Red Herrings)
There are many techniques mystery writers use to plant information, usually for the purpose of obscuring true clues and highlighting the red herrings.
Let’s explore some of those techniques.
Blend the true clue into the narrative among the red herrings.
This involves casually mentioning the clue so that it comes across as incidental or appears to be there for some other reason. For example, maybe the victim had heated a bowl of soup which sat untouched on the table. There’s no spoon anywhere in the room, but there’s the fork, presumably knocked to the floor during the attack.
Preoccupy the reader with the bowl of soup. It may turn out that the bowl of soup was irrelevant, but early on there’s no way of telling the clues from the red herrings. If you’ve done your job well, your reader will keep turning pages to find out if the soup had anything to do with the murder.
Agatha Christie is well-known as the mistress of misdirection. Elizabeth George has this to say about her expert placement of clues and red herrings:
“What Agatha Christie did was to fashion her scenes so that the clue was present but so was the red herring. And the scene pivoted around the red herring, not around the clue. Brilliant.”
Weave clues and red herrings into the dialogue.
Let your characters exchange thoughts, opinions, information, and accusations.
Maybe they engage in a dialogue about the soup, tossing about theories or fears. Was the soup poisoned? Where did the soup come from?
If one or more of your characters happens to come to a wrong conclusion, readers will be influenced by that. This is absolutely fair game, and it can work with a character’s inner monologue as well.
Use the power of lists.
Lists are a useful tool for mystery writers. They’re a great way to direct the reader’s attention where you want it.
If you need to obscure a true clue, bury it as the fourth or fifth item in a list. Readers tend to register and remember the first three items and the last one in a list. Anything in between falls through the mental cracks.
If you want to make sure a reader pays attention to your red herrings, use the rule of three to spotlight your plant. For instance, mention your misleading bits of information in groups of three, interspersed with action or dialogue.
And if you want them to overlook it, bury it in a list.
Create a distraction.
When you must allow readers to discover an undisguised clue, immediately distract them afterwards by switching to an action scene. You’d be surprised at how effective this is at getting readers to forget all about the important clue until it comes up again at the end.
Distractions are a tried and true tactic.
Craft a cliffhanger around a clue
This has the added benefit of seizing a reader at the end of a chapter and virtually forcing him to continue reading. Cliffhangers create a bridge over the gap between chapters and make a great place to dangle a clue.
Let something seem out of place.
This is a great way to work in a clue, or even a red herring. Is there a pair of dirty socks flung down in an otherwise immaculate bedroom? Is the meticulously groomed woman wearing a gaudy pair of earrings?
In the Agatha Christie short story How Does Your Garden Grow, Poirot notices an unfinished row of shells lining a flower bed in the garden of the victim’s house—the only asymmetrical feature in the well-kept garden.
This seemingly inconsequential detail is what tips him to the solution of the murder.
Make absence a clue
Like the Sherlock Holmes example of the dog in the nighttime, the absence of clues can be a clue in itself.
For instance, what if the body didn’t have a mark on it? Or a stitch of clothing? Or any way to identify it? The absence of these things would be an intriguing indicator and something to follow up on.
What if the victim didn’t exist—in other words, had no background to dig into. No past. No connections.
And in the case of our scenario, doesn’t the absence of the spoon strike you as odd? No one eats soup with a fork, so what happened to the spoon? Mind you, if this becomes a point in your plot, you’ll have to provide an explanation by the story’s conclusion or risk disappointing readers with a loose end.
Hide the clue in plain sight
This is a delicious way to play fair by displaying the clue in plain sight the whole time yet not drawing attention to it. Simply mention it casually once or twice and let it sit around in the background—or even the foreground—until its significance dawns on the detective and the reader.
In my book Adalet, the heroine desperately searches for the information she needs. She riffles through coffee table books and pulls apart framed artwork, never realizing the clue she sought was right in front of her—the subject of the books and artwork.
Give a clue by inference
This means giving the reader an impression that registers as a clue by describing how a suspect’s eyes (or any other detail) got shifty when the detective mentioned offshore accounts.
Giving clues by inference is a subtle way to impart information and it can end up serving as a true clue, a red herring, or even a false clue if your villain is devious and skilled enough to make it fly.
Give a clue by analogy
This happens a lot in TV shows like Midsomer Murders or Death in Paradise. It’s kind of their signature move, and very effective, too.
What is it? The detective sees something or remembers something that triggers a thought process and produces the solution to all or part of the puzzle.
For example, in the season seven kickoff episode of “Death in Paradise,” the murderer pulls a clever trick by pushing the victim to her death off his own balcony, which is directly above hers, and making it look like a suicide.
Inspector Mooney got the inspiration to solve the crime when he took a bowl off the shelf and noticed an identical bowl on the shelf directly above it.
Cooking Up a Fishy Story
To help you decide what kind of red herrings to cook up, look to the victim. Ask who else would want him dead? What are the possible motives? Who else had opportunity? Or the means?
In true red herring fashion, the fishy stories you manufacture should cross over the trail of the real murderer a time or two.
Sticking with the scenario we created, say the coroner’s report reveals that Leo was killed by a heavy cylindrical object. Who has access to such an object?
And don’t forget, the murderer will likely fabricate false clues to throw everyone off the scent.
With your creative writing—and the help of this article—you should be able to cook up any number of fishy stories to mislead and entertain your readers. Whether you're writing a traditional mystery, a police procedural, or any of the other subgenres of suspense fiction.
Bonus: Two Documents to Help You Write a Mystery Book
Before you dive into creating a suspenseful piece of mystery fiction full of intriguing clues, there are two documents you should consider creating to help you successfully plot your story.
The first is a timeline.
I like to use a timeline to coordinate my characters’ movements so I know who was where, and when. This helps me keep everything straight and avoid committing errors with alibis and opportunities.
The second item is a clue tracker to make sure you follow up each clue or red herring you plant.
For example, did you notice that we never resolved the issue of Leo's missing coin collection? If we were truly writing this story, we'd have to show the reader what happened to it. It's important to tie up all the loose ends and keep your reader happy.
Because that’s what it’s all about—happy, satisfied readers who want to play the game of detective as much as the detective wants to solve the case.
And now you know how to use several new techniques to do that!
Be sure to read and bookmark the other articles in this series on the elements of suspense and don’t miss the next post, chock full of more tips to help you build suspense into your stories.
How about you? Do you enjoy solving the puzzle of a murder mystery? Share your thoughts in the comments.
For today's practice, use your own work in progress or one of these prompts:
- A body is found by a construction crew digging the foundation for a new museum.
- A camper in a youth survivalist training program goes missing in mysterious circumstances.
- A member of a women’s basketball team is found stabbed in the locker room.
Now, plot out the discovery of the crime scene, and make a list of several clues and red herrings related to it. Draw on a few of the techniques outlined in the post.
Be sure to provide feedback and encouragement for your fellow writers!
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.