Thursday, May 8, 2014

Clues & Red Herrings -- Part III

When I first started writing, a dear friend (and author of many books) gave me a piece of excellent advice. He said, “When things are going smoothly, put your protagonist in a tree and throw rocks at him.” In addition to torturing your protagonist in the usual confrontational manner, a mystery writer has the ability to frustrate the living daylights out of their characters with clues that make no sense and red herrings to lead them on unproductive goose chases and push them to the edge of defeat. To that end, we shall continue;

The contradiction: He said/she said. This is any information, subtle or obvious, and imparted by at least two different characters that gives lie to an event. Who’s lying? Who knows! Put them together in a room for a fight, put them in separate scenes to confuse the sleuth.

For example:

A witness might declare, “It was exactly three o’clock when I saw him go into the bank. I know this because I had an appointment with my doctor two doors down at three and I was running late.”
The man in question might say, “I left the bank at two fifty-five to catch the bus at the stop on the next block.”

If this is critical information in solving the crime, you can have fun driving your sleuth nuts with it.
The omission: A character doesn’t mention something when they should – well at least when the reader expects them to because it’s consistent with their character to say something.
For example:

A catty woman tells her co-worker, “I saw your husband last night at Smitty’s Diner with a red head.”
The co-worker, a woman we know needs to believe in her husband’s fidelity, shuffles some papers and says, “He loves their hash browns.”

Uh oh. Trouble is brewing. Is the wife planning it … or will she be the victim? 

The misinterpretation: In real life, people can be given the same information and, for various reasons, interpret that information differently. This goes for your characters, as well. You can use all things/people/situations both familiar and unfamiliar (and therefore dismissed as commonplace or given too much importance), but misinterpreted to the writer's advantage. When specifics are missing, the possibilities are your oyster.

For example:

What does it mean if someone says to you; “You have to do more if you expect to get ahead here”?

“More” is hardly specific, and delightfully common. We think we know what it means; Work longer hours, work harder. But to someone else it could it mean; Arrange an unfortunate accident for your supervisor. Sabotage the competition. Have an affair with the boss.

See what I mean?

The outright lie: Good standby. But watch who uses it (someone who normally tells the truth or is a habitual liar?) Again, know your characters.

Do you really need an example? Thought not.

The tantalizing hint: the partial, intriguing  bit of information that leaves out the most important stuff.  These things happen all the time in real life. In your novel, it’s the equivalent of an end-of-chapter cliff hanger, but in a bite-sized form. Keep in mind you don’t have to spill all the information you possess. Putting off the moment you let your reader in on the rest of the tidbit will keep them turning the page and give you multiple opportunities to torture your sleuth.

For example, your friend’s FaceBook post:

I knew I shouldn’t have opened the letter I got today.

Not only do you NOT know what happened because of it (although it seems it wasn’t good), but you don’t know who the letter was from or what it said (Frankly if your friend does too much of this nonsense you’d be justified in unfriending them. It’s annoying).

Here’s another famous example from comedian Louis Black: “If it weren’t for my horse I wouldn’t have spent that year in college.” As the man says, there is no conceivable logic to that statement and if you think too hard about it your mind will explode.

The common thread is; Only additional explanation will satisfy the reader. 


You might think that this is it – the final list … but … like the ad says, there’s more! Digest this and we’ll move along to the next bit in a couple of days. Enjoy!


  1. Great tips, and I'm trying to wrap my head around Black's remark!

    1. Yeah, isn't that something? And that was his point! Glad you're enjoying the blog!