Sunday, May 4, 2014

Clues & Red Herrings -- Part I

Everyone knows what clues and red herrings are, right? A clue is anything that leads to the truth. A red herring deceives and misleads. If everyone knows what they are, then why do I keep hearing variations of these questions?

How do you build them into your mystery?
How do you hide the bad guy?
How do you plant clues a reader may miss?
How do you construct red herrings to misdirect?
Where should the clues of means, motive and opportunity as well as the red herrings be planted?
How many should there be?

Over the course of six books, I’ve learned one or two things that will help answer these questions. One is that clues and red herrings don’t just spring into being. You have to be as deliberate in hiding and misguiding as you are to adhering to the slavish demands of the creative process.

The other is, no matter how clever you are, not every reader will miss the clues you plant, and not every red herring you plant will be swallowed. On the flip side, some readers will see clues and red herrings where there aren’t any. You have no control over this. You can work on what you do have control over; your story, your characters and how you put them together. This is the basis of well hidden clues and believable red herrings.

A mystery is a distillation of many stories – the protagonist’s, the antagonist’s, the villain’s, the secondary characters’, the victim’s. Understanding all your characters’ stories well will help you weave in clues and red herrings.

While it is possible, and some say preferable, to know what kinds of clues and red herrings you’re going to include in your story before you type the first word of the first draft, it’s probably in subsequent editing passes where you’ll insert, or rearrange those items – or find opportunities you didn’t realize would be there. To be successful clues and red herrings should be part of the weave of the story.

So, what do you do first?

A little analysis helps give a starting point. Knowing how your protagonist is going to proceed will help you decide where the clues and red herrings should be placed. Whether you’ve finished your first draft or are ready to start plotting, figuring out what kind of a mystery you are working with will help you sprinkle in clues to motive, means and opportunity in the right places.

Know your story

Here are the three basic types of set-ups for the mystery story;

Fair play: There is more than one suspect – often times a lot more. Each character has motives the sleuth investigates and dismisses one after another until the bad guy is caught.

Quest: As the sleuth uncovers one clue it will inevitably lead to another. The red herrings lead to dead ends.

Puzzle: the sleuth uncovers pieces which are in no particular order until the whole picture fits together. It will also be at that time that the red herrings will become evident


Know your characters

You will have gotten to know the players in your drama either by walking with them through the story’s first draft of by constructing a dossier before hand – or through a combination. However you’ve done it (and character building is a volume in and of itself) you should be able to answer these questions for all of your main characters and probably several of your secondary ones as well. 

What do they want? Goals, needs, desires.
What do they notice in the story & how important is it to them?
What kinds of things will divert them from seeing the truth?
What are their limits, strengths, weaknesses – and what do they believe them to be?
How do they react to conflict?

Remember, although you write your story from your point-of-view character's goals, actions and reactions, the other characters have them, too, and will influence the obstacles your sleuth must overcome.

Yeah, it’s work. And in all likelihood, you’ve got some heavy thinking to do. The laying in of clues and red herrings is not a small topic, so it’s going to take me several blog posts to cover the specific techniques, and all of the techniques are based on story type and character. So … do your homework and hang on to what you find out.

Next time: The tools to conceal and mislead.


  1. Good tips!

    I didn't go in for mystery, but at the heart of my plot was a puzzle of sorts that my protagonists had to solve.

  2. It seems to me there's always a puzzle to solve in a story! Many of the tips (coming up in Parts II & III) can be used successfully for non-mystery stories as well, and are useful for heightening suspense regardless of the genre.

  3. I believe we write - and read - mysteries as a way of exploring the larger questions in life that seem to have no answer. All the answers provided by gurus and politicians are red herrings and it's up to each of us to find out 'who done it' on our own :).

    Great breakdown of writing techniques, Susan - really well done!

    1. Thank you, Joyce! I agree with your opinion of why we read and write mysteries. It certainly is a way -- and a safe way -- of exploring the larger questions in life. And we each have our own truth, too. Finding that can be difficult.

  4. Thanks for this post, Susan. I especially liked the way you categorized stories into three types, each with their own clues & red herrings, and look forward to reading Parts 2 and 3 to learn more!

    1. Thanks, Christine! Recognizing structure can help clear up confusion, and open doors you didn't know were there. Like anything, though, there can be gray areas and areas of overlap. Nevertheless, I hope this series helps encourage people's creativity! Part II is coming up tomorrow!

  5. Great post, Susan. It's gotten me to think about what I do intuitively.
    I'm sorry I didn't get to meet you at Malice.

    1. Thank you, Marilyn! I think a lot of the things you read here (and in the subsequent posts) about clues and red herrings are techniques that are intuitive -- especially when you've been writing/reading mysteries for a while. And that's an excellent place to be! Knowing there is a method to the madness is reassuring, though.

      Wish I'd been at Malice to meet so many friends I know only online! One of these years I will make the cross-country trek.

  6. You are correct that it is difficult to hide clues and highlight red herrings. Thanks for sharing some interesting and extremely useful tips, Susan.

    1. Thank you, Gail! And very glad you stopped by. It takes a lot of thought and planning, not to mention some creative luck to put it all together. Even when you have good instincts, it helps to know there is some "method" you can fall back on when the going gets tough ;)

  7. Great definition of clues and herrings. It really clicked for me. Can't wait for part two.

    1. There's lots more! Nothing like getting that "ah-ha" moment.