Writing a mystery novel is tough. You can’t withhold all the details until the end, but if you give too much away, your reader will discover who the murderer is before your sleuth. Both should realize the identity of the murderer at the same time. So how do you keep the mystery from unraveling before the end of your story? How do you hide the culprit in a good whodunit?
Here are some techniques I found to keep the reader guessing.
Draw attention elsewhere. Basically, use the old magician’s trick of distracting the eye. Emphasize the unimportant; de-emphasize the clue. That way, the reader sees the clue but not what’s important about it and is apt to glide right over its significance.
Camouflage a clue with action. Reveal the clue in the midst of a lot of action to distract attention.
Stage the real clue right before a red herring. Generally, people tend to remember the last item in a series. So, if your clue is among a series of items (say the contents of a purse) name the item you want the reader to remember last.
Create a time problem. Manipulate time to your own advantage. On the surface, the timeline of events or the time of death appears one way, but the truth is something else. Perhaps an incorrect time of death gives a suspect an alibi.
Hide the clue in plain sight. Tuck the clue among so many other possible clues that it doesn’t stand out.
Scatter pieces of the clue in different places and mix up the logical order. Challenge your reader by revealing only part of a clue at a time.
Have the clue turn out to be what isn’t there. The suspect painstakingly explains what happened in great detail, but the clue your reader needs to notice is what should’ve happened but didn’t. .
Have your Protagonist misinterpret the meaning of a clue. Your sleuth can make a logical mistake that sends the reader’s focus on a red herring.
Establish a clue before the reader can know its significance. Introduce the key information before the reader has a context to fit it into, generally at the beginning of the book and often before the murder takes place.