A (Simple?) Formula for Deception:

Deception = (clues x + y + z) / Smart Sleuth

Deception lies at the heart of mystery.  Clues are mistakes that villains make when they want to remain hidden.  Clues are:  x = objects, y = information, and z = an observed action.  Smart Sleuths uncover x, y, and z and interpret them through their special skills, thus bringing the villain out of hiding.

Simple, right?


Here’s the hitch:  Readers want to have the same information the sleuth has, but they also want to be surprised, AND they want the author to play fair, by dropping in clues in plain sight.  What’s a stumbling, budding mystery author to do??  Here are a few solutions.

Hiding object clues in plain sight:

  • don’t hide them.  Who would’ve thought the letter in “The Purloined Letter” was really the letter in question??  And then there’s Agatha Christie, the queen of this technique, who often hid clues in first chapters.  Readers are getting into the story and tend not to absorb clues that early.
  • long lists.  It’s hard for readers to remember items in lists when there are more than 3.
  • misdirection.  Emphasizing the unimportant side of a clue.
  • absence.  Obvious clues that are supposed to be there, but are conspicuously absent.

Hiding information in plain sight:

  • give the information to the reader before the crime is committed–forgetful reader will have a harder time connecting the two pieces
  • humor, unreliable narrators, or chatty narrators–in each case, who’s going to believe such a narrator can give serious, important clues?
  • what’s left unsaid

Hiding action in plain sight:

  • a dramatic action happens just as Smart Sleuth gains a clue, distracting Reader from what you don’t want her to puzzle over
  • a new meaning to a clue that has been misinterpreted, because even Smart Sleuths can be misdirected

Misdirect + distract = 2 key verbs of deception


13 thoughts on “A (Simple?) Formula for Deception:”

  1. What a great explanation. This is one of the things I trip up over. You need the clues, the reader has to have the clues, but you don’t want the reader to put the clues together too soon.

    Definitely a challenge.

  2. Wonderful post, Sue! I love the way you broke this down. The clues left unsaid are always the ones that fool me as a reader, and seem to be the ones I overlook when writing. Definitely going to reference this post as I start working on my next mystery!

  3. I had to wait until the afternoon to read this post. It was giving me a headache this morning. KIDDING! (sorta)

    What a clear concept! I agree with Kait. If you aren’t preparing course material for this, you should!

  4. Thanks, ladies, and sorry for the headache. Me too! Actually, I have worked this up as workshop material. Really fun to do!

  5. Wonderful explanation! As a newbie to writing mysteries, hiding the clues in plain sight or knowing what to reveal when, is still the hardest part of the outline process. Valuable advice- thank you!

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