Sunday, May 11, 2014

Clues & Red Herrings -- Part IV

We've arrived, at last, to my final post on Clues and Red Herrings. It's quite a list, and surely not exhaustive -- although if you've been following this from Part I there's a good chance you're exhausted by now. So, without further ado, here's the last four;

The use of “sympathetic traits” to characterize the “bad guy” – the reader will assume innocent motive. You could probably have him confess to the murder and if you play it right, only a fraction of your readers will believe it. But do be careful that the clue that he’s capable is also provided – otherwise your reader will toss your baby across the room.

For example: 

The arrogant womanizer who, although divorced, spends four nights a week of quality time and every Saturday with his eight-year-old daughter, never misses a school function and remembers birthdays and special occasions. He’d never have killed that librarian!

Body language that speaks of a lie, anxiety, or discomfort to a degree that is inappropriate … and then omitting the reason for it until a later time. Reader and characters alike will be suspicious!

**This is a whole course in itself, but it helps to put yourself in the character’s head. What are they trying to hide? It may or may not be related to the crime, but it should show in their body language.

For example:

True story. I watched, on TV and several years ago, the trial of a woman accused of plotting the murder of her daughter. What mother would do that? It couldn’t be true! The woman denied the accusations, swore she had nothing to do with the attack on her daughter. Then the prosecutor asked her directly if she tried to kill her daughter. She said no. And nodded her head repeatedly. 


You try this. Have someone ask you a question, “Did you ___?” Answer it knowing the truth is “yes”, but try to say “no.” If you’ve been raised in a culture where head nodding is “yes” then this will be very hard to do.

Just in case you were wondering, the woman was convicted. Phew.

The “Lie Sandwich” aka The “Truth Sandwich: To make a lie appear more believable, insert it between things known to be true. The same can be said for having a truth dismissed as inconsequential or an outright lie – hide it within other falsehoods, or among things the reader will discover are untrue.

For example: 

A conniving little witch pouts as her husband grows angry over how much money she’s just spent. She interrupts his lecture, saying, “I love you and I think of you every moment of the day. I’m sorry I spent your Christmas bonus on these shoes, but I saw how you couldn’t take your eyes off Mary when she had on those red Jimmy Choos with the three inch heels and I wanted you to look at me like that, too.”

Sorry? Right. One of them is going to end up dead – do you think?

The sub plot: Another case of Know Your Characters and Your Story. Sub plots have their own arcs. This can be especially effective if there is ongoing suspense to divert reader attention from the subplot. that subplot will come across as a “break” for the reader in the tension when it is actually the villain in action.

As examples, I'll use two of my own mysteries. If you've read them, you'll know if they're red herrings or clues. If you haven't, well ... who can blame me for enticing you?

In An Error in Judgment, is the disarray in Sig's private fossil collection that co-protagonist Paul is helping to straighten out related to the murder or is it simply a device to showcase a character’s personality and abilities? 

In Shooting to Kill, is Andrea's wealth related to Don's death? What about Thea's secret? 

Not every subplot has to be related to the crime -- nor should they be. It's fun for the reader to figure out if there's a connection.

How'd You Do?

To find out if you've succeeded, get beta readers lined up and ask their opinions. Specifically, at what point did they figure out who committed the crime. And while they're at it, have them point out the clues and red herrings they notice along the way. 

I hope you've enjoyed this rather lengthy series of posts and gained some tools to add to your writing (and reading!) arsenal. Did I miss something? Add your thoughts in the comment section!


  1. Your example of the conniving witch and the husband, one of them ending up dead, made me think that yes, sooner or later Lieutenant Columbo will show up at the door and drive the surviving spouse nuts by saying, "Just one more thing..."

    1. LOL! Yes, I believe we can count on the Lieutenant! He was always a favorite of mine!

  2. This is a great series of posts, Susan!

    1. Thanks, Kaye! Glad you enjoyed them -- they were fun to research and write :)