Clues in non-mysteries

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series Clues in non mysteries

Every book, no matter what the style or genre, has some element of mystery, whether that’s “whodunnit” or “What happens next?” While surprise is fun to play with in a story, the major plot and character movements should really come from somewhere, set up with foreshadowing, or clues.

And let’s face it, these clues are a tough balancing act. We have to let the reader know there’s something coming for them, that these events that don’t seem significant will be—but at the same time, we can’t build small things up too much, or we’ll disappoint our readers instead of rewarding them with the payoff, and probably more importantly, we don’t want to give away the coming twists.

Whether you’re writing a mystery or romance or literary fiction, there’s always something we’ll want to “bury” so our readers don’t realize its significance at first. In this series, we’ll look at what these clues might be and several ways to hide them!

What do you think? What kind of “clues” do you see in non mysteries?

Photo by Jake Bouma

What are clues?

This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series Clues in non mysteries

I’m taking a bloggy vacation this week, so we’ll resume this series when I get back! Other posts scheduled later this week, too!

In a mystery, a clue—or at least its definition—is obvious: it’s a little fact that, along with all the others, adds up to finding the murderer and his/her motive and opportunity. These clues include objects at (or from) the crime scene, objects or information relating to the victim or killer, and interactions with the as-yet-unknown killer, as well as red herrings, clues pointing to an innocent but viable suspect, or clues that seem to prove the innocence of the real killer.

In a work that isn’t a murder mystery or thriller, however, there’s often still a central mystery or question that isn’t answered until an important point in the plot: a secret revealed at a key moment, a reversal, a shapeshifter (archetypal, not literal) unmasked, etc. And of course, there’s usually a central element of mystery in the plot: what will happen? These mysteries are the kind of thing that you might mention with a *SPOILER ALERT* warning first (just like you would in a regular mystery).

And just like in mysteries, clues are again the little events, objects, or information that foreshadow the coming revelation: clues that show us a character isn’t who she says she is, a hint that an ally or a rival knows more than they’re letting on, or even just an unusual event or object that the POV character notices (just barely).

The balancing act with all clues is difficult because if we draw too much attention to them, we run the risk of giving away the mystery. A less serious risk would be overplaying the mystery—for minor reveals, if we include too much buildup, the “payoff” of the reveal will be less satisfying.

On the other hand, if we bury the clues too well—or neglect to include them at all—the reader feels like the rug was pulled out from under him. The reader goes from the surprise an author is aiming for right to betrayal.

With this series, we’ll look at several methods of burying these clues, so that our reader notices them just enough, and try to address how much is just enough.

What do you think? What kind of “clues” do you use?

Photo by Paul Kohler

Bury clues using framing with scene goals

This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series Clues in non mysteries

Finally, the fun stuff: techniques for making sure your clues and foreshadowing are in there, but don’t attract too much attention from your reader that you’re telegraphing the pass.

Burying clues is all about framing: mentioning the object or information in plain sight, but in light of something more important so that the reader doesn’t think, “Ah, this is out of place/overly conspicuous/waaay too innocent looking—it must mean something.”

The first way we’ll discuss burying clues I’m calling “using framing with scene goals.” Scene goals are the POV character’s “mission” going into the scene. These goals should be fairly obvious, and may even be stated: “He had to get that folder from her before she looked inside,” “If I didn’t find out what the assignment was, I was toast,” etc.

So the POV character comes into the scene focused on this goal—maybe a little too focused, in fact. Maybe so focused that we use this to our advantage. As Jack Bickham explains (emphasis mine):

We know that the viewpoint character is strongly motivated toward a specific, short-term goal essential to his long-term quest when he enters the scene. Therefore, he will tend to be preoccupied with this goal throughout the scene. In fiction, as in real life, people tend to interpret everything in the frame of reference of their preoccupation of the moment. This is why it’s sometimes possible to make the wildest excursions inside the conflict appear to have relevance: The viewpoint character will inevitably interpret almost anything as relating back to the goal; you can show his line of thinking in an internalization, and so drag the seeming excursion far afield back into apparent relevance.

When our characters are so focused on this goal, we can use that focus to help the character (and thus the reader) dismiss something that might obviously be a clue. “Oh, he’s just hanging around because he needs to get the assignment, too.”

The scene goal tempers how a character sees material clues. They can explain them away easily: “Oh, that paperwork is on her desk—good! She’s been busy. She hasn’t had a chance to look inside the folder.”

Or they can just barely notice them—just enough to warrant a mention, but we have a MISSION here, people, and we are not going to get sidetracked!

What do you think? Have you ever had a character so focused on a scene goal that they led a reader away from a clue?

Photo by Candie_N

Burying clues with melodramatic misdirection

This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series Clues in non mysteries

Another framing to disguise (or distract readers from) clues is using melodrama. The editors’ blog Edittorrent defines melodrama succinctly: “If the emotion is bigger than the situation warrants, it’s melodramatic.” Melodrama, by definition, is characterized by “exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts.”

Generally, we think of melodrama as something bad, but it’s not as evil as it sounds. Sometimes melodrama is useful in a story. Author and former editor Deborah Halverson wrote a post on the Query Tracker blog about one of the good uses of melodrama: young adult fiction.

But that’s not the only good use for melodrama. In the same post on Edittorent, editor Theresa Stevens gives us a great example of how this oft-maligned tool can also help us bury clues:

For example, in mysteries, we often try to hide clues in plain sight by mentioning them in small ways, and then surrounding them with bigger things. “Hey, look, there’s a bullet hole in this wall. AND OMG SOMETHING JUST EXPLODED AND BLEW ME OUT OF MY BOOTS.” The explosion might make good plot (in context), but the bullet hole is the detail we’re trying to sneak into plain sight.

Naturally, as we’re doing this, we have to be careful. For an experienced reader, the placement of a clue right before a melodramatic distracting event might be too coincidental—an experienced reader knows to look in plain sight 😉 . Even experienced readers, however, can be distracted by continued (melo)drama: keeping the pace going after the explosion in the above example, instead of a lull so the reader’s thoughts might return to the bullet hole. And hey, it wouldn’t hurt to destroy the wall that had the bullet hole in it, right?

What do you think? How do you use melodrama to misdirect your readers? Can you be distracted by melodrama?

Photo by Loren Javier

Burying clues using repetition

This entry is part 5 of 11 in the series Clues in non mysteries

It sounds counter intuitive, doesn’t it? And I suppose it’s a little bit of a misnomer. Really, in this case, we’re less burying the clue and more building it.

You can use this to indicate in a very tight POV (third or first) to help show that your character is deceiving himself or herself. In this case, the character “doth protest too much,” insisting so much that things are a certain way or s/he feels a certain way that it begins to ring hollow. This can be a difficult balance, because less intuitive readers may not be able to read between the lines of the repetition.

The repetition method can also be particularly useful with revealing a villain’s identity (which, admittedly, is more of a mystery genre feature, but isn’t exclusive to the genre). I’ve used this in the past by repeating scenes with the villain, similar encounters where the villain slowly escalates until we finally see what he’s capable of.

In this variation, we repeat an element—whether that’s the villain or a symbol or a trigger to flashbacks—and each time, we add another layer to the clue. In this method, naturally, we want to hold back the most important and most revealing layers until later, when the readers and the characters (we hope) solve the story’s mystery in time for the final confrontation, whether that’s internal or external.

What do you think? How would you use repetition to build or bury a clue?

Photo by Dan4th Nicholas

Burying clues using sequencing

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series Clues in non mysteries

This is probably the most basic way to bury a clue. It doesn’t require any smoke and mirrors to distract the readers while you talk as fast as you can to misdirect their attention. No, to use sentence sequencing, you just keep talking. Same tone, same pitch, just making sure that you don’t end on something important—namely, a clue.

Generally, we want to put the most important or highest impact element in a sentence or paragraph at the end. There, it carries a little extra resonance, and gives the reader a mental “blip” to commit that element to memory.

The second best place for the high impact element in a sentence is the beginning. Here, you still have very good reader recall, but because the sentence or paragraph continues rambling downhill after that, you undercut the impact of that element.

The serial position effect suggests that humans best recall elements at the beginning and end of lists. The first item (primacy effect) actually shows a slightly higher recall rate than the last item (recency effect).

To me, both these effects have some useful applications. We can use the beginning of scenes and paragraphs (and perhaps even sentences) for elements that we want our readers to remember throughout the passage: scene goals, for example. We can use the ends of scenes, paragraphs and sentences for words and thoughts with the most impact.

Which leaves the middle: the best place for things we want our readers to notice but not place too much significance upon. Theresa Stevens at edittorrent has called this the “Mystery Clue Effect.” It’s nothing more than sticking the important item in the middle of a list, sentence, paragraph or even scene, and moving on to something else with a natural flow.

What do you think? How do you hide clues with sequencing?

Photo by NoiseJammer

Burying clues using context and interpretation

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series Clues in non mysteries

This technique is similar to using framing for burying clues, but distinct enough I think it warrants its own entry in the series.

In this method, the clue really is in plain sight. No tricks to cover it up or conceal its importance—only its meaning. Using the viewpoint character’s perspective, we explain away the clue because we’re seeing it out of context. Perhaps the POV character isn’t hunting for clues right now, or maybe we’ve moved from the plot with the mystery into a subplot involving other characters—anything to move the POV character’s frame of mind somewhere else so that the clue doesn’t seem to bear any extra significance.

To cite an example I gave in the comments of an Edittorrent discussion on burying clues (although this is a mystery, the concept applies across genres; emphasis added):

Let’s say that your plot is structured so that the hero is a detective and there’s been a murder at our heroine’s office (her supervisor was killed [with a staple gun, which our heroine doesn’t know], and there’s an obvious suspect). In her free time, our heroine has been helping her best friend start her own cafe.

Our heroine is helping to decorate the cafe (in her subplot). Her BFF asks her to hang the grapevine lattice on the ceiling, since she’s afraid of heights. The heroine takes the lattice and the staple gun up the ladder and obliges.

But really, the BFF is avoiding the staple gun because she killed the coworker (insert motive here). But because we’re out of context, given a plausible alternate explanation, and not in an investigative POV (and note the BFF doesn’t mention the weapon of choice), it’s easy to dismiss it (as long as there’s a clear purpose in the scene, too).

Plus, now the BFF can frame our heroine with her prints on the murder weapon.

Jami Gold also gave a great example of a slightly different methodology for doing this in the comments. The POV character interprets the clues into a context that might make sense to them, but it’s not correct. The heroine thinks the hero’s giving her A Look because he doesn’t approve of the friends she’s going out with (or doesn’t care about her); the hero can’t believe she’s ditching him.

What do you think? How do you use context and interpretation to bury clues?

Photo by Scott Vandehey

The virtues(?) of surprise(!)

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series Clues in non mysteries

There is a difference (or delicate balance) between suspense and surprise. As Alfred Hitchcock points out, we can either seed clues and create suspense, drawing our audience’s emotions out, or shoot for surprise, and go for a big but short-lived emotional bang from the audience. Hitchcock says that suspense is better—and he’s right for the most part—but surprises still play an important role in all fiction.

Most of the time, surprises shouldn’t come out of left field from the other side of the Green Monster. As writers, it can be very gratifying to pull one over on your readers. But it’s even more gratifying if you’ve surprised them despite the foreshadowing and clues you’ve planted throughout your story. Without something the reader can go back through and identify as a clue (“Oh, man, I should have seen it coming!”), they’re likely to feel betrayed.

The clues and foreshadowing can be a great tool to build an amorphous suspense. If you keep them vague but strong, that sense of foreboding will carry through your work, pulling the readers with it—and they’ll still be stunned when you pull off the big reveal.

But I think the worst kind of surprise is when we base a surprise on something the point of view character already knows but hasn’t told the reader. To me, that’s basically lying—leading the reader to believe that we’ll all be together and we’ll tell the reader everything, but holding back the one thing that our character would know or think or realize that would make the experience complete for the reader.

I don’t mean that we have to spell out everything the character knows the exact second he or she knows it—or have the characters spill their guts to one another. But if the main character has known the truth all along—or they came into the story knowing some arcane fact that’s going to solve the case—that’s the kind of surprise that’s going to ring false to a reader unless it’s supposed to be the point of the whole story (and even then . . . ouch).

So how much foreshadowing is enough? It depends on how big the surprise is—and how central it is to the plot. (Helpful, I know.)

What do you think? How have surprises you’ve read (or written) fallen flat?

This post, with a different introduction, originally ran 15 February 2010 as part of the series on Tension, suspense and surprise.

Photo by Benson Kua