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.
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