SuspectEvery suspect is hiding a secret. Let me repeat for emphasis: EVERY SUSPECT IS HIDING A SECRET. It’s just that only one of them is hiding THE secret. The others don’t want your hero uncovering that they’ve stolen family heirlooms, was responsible for the happy couple’s break-up, dealing drugs, burned down the school building, pirating cable TV. Part of the fun of reading a murder mystery is unraveling the sordid lives of the suspect line-up.

So what makes a good suspect?

If ultimately the murderer is proven to have motive, means and opportunity, a viable suspect should have one or two of these attributes, but not all three. The obvious suspect will have “motive.” (She stood up in a crowded theater and announced her vow to make sure that the victim wouldn’t live to see the light of another day just hours before the murder occurred.) The suspect with “means” just happens to own the murder weapon, and the one with “opportunity” was at the wrong place at the wrong time. However, upon investigation, everyone of these attributes point to something else entirely – something that’s probably scandalous and juicy.

So how many suspects should be standing in the line-up?

That can be a little tricky. There’s got to be enough suspects to ensure that the murderer’s identity is a surprise, but not so many that the poor, confused reader can’t keep up. Three is the minimum (see above) but, if the story calls for it, that line-up can stretch to four or five.

Show me a good suspect, and I’ll show you a good liar.

At least one, if not all, should be lying through his teeth. He is feeding the sleuth (and the reader) false information that leads them looking in the wrong direction. Obviously he’s lying to keep a secret hidden, but could also be protecting a reputation or a family member. Protection makes a believable motive for deception. And, when his lie is revealed, it makes a great twist in the book and places this suspect in the spotlight.

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What makes a good murderer?

canstockphoto2807516You know that dramatic reveal at the end of a good mystery where the sleuth explains who committed the murder and why?  **SHOCKER!** The author had all those details worked out well before the first page. A good mystery writer begins the book knowing the murderer’s method, motive and opportunity. And all those elements must logically add up, else readers will be very unforgiving – and very vocal — in reviews.

So when I’m considering a character to commit murder, these are my considerations:

Is this character obvious – or will the identity be too easy for readers to deduce? If so, I know I’m going to have a lot of work to do. The husband, for example,  is naturally Suspect #1 in his wife’s murder – and it’s okay if he turns out to be the one who did it – but there better be a lot of doubt in the reader’s mind.

Is the character physically capable of committing the murder? That doesn’t just mean physically – which he or she must be – but also emotionally. The murder must fit the murderer.

Does the motive make sense and is it believable? Granted, there is a certain allowance for suspension of disbelief in all murder mysteries, but the motive must still carry some weight.  A good mystery is telling two stories: the one on the surface – which your sleuth is engaged in solving – and a darker, hidden story buried between the lines. That story must be equally engaging.

Does this character impact the story (besides being the catalyst) and leave an impression on the reader? The murderer doesn’t have to be a main character, but should at least be a supporting role throughout the book. There’s two things you can’t do – introduce the murderer at the beginning of the book to never be mentioned again or introduce the murderer in the last quarter of the book. Both of those strategies are cheating. The murderer must be visible, interacting with the main characters of the book and known by the reader fairly early in the story.

Even if the answers to a couple of these questions are no, I may move ahead with my plot—but I know that I still have a lot of work to do. Still, if the character just doesn’t feel right, I might explore motives for the other character. In Prey of Desire, the identity of the original murderer changed for the better. Both characters were still in the book, but only one character brought all the elements together for a good murder mystery.

Hiding the Murderer in Your Mystery Novel

canstockphoto5658206A murder mystery is a tightly layered, often complicated plot — but it can’t read that way. The mystery has to unfold scene by scene, leading the reader from suspect to suspect, motive to motive.

So how do you create viable suspects while planting clues to the real murderer throughout the plot?

Obviously, I start with a detailed outline. But, beyond that I personally write in layers. The first layer, Draft One, is the plot at its most simplistic. It features the Victim, the Murderer and the Sleuth. I leave out all other suspects and subplots at this point, and just focus on the story’s core. This is a critical step, as I’m writing the mystery’s foundation. And, it must be solid. The murderer must have motive, means and opportunity. The act of murder must make sense. The Murder’s relationship to the victim is developed. The major clues pointing to the Murderer’s identity are placed. And the Sleuth’s unraveling of the Murderer’s deception is written. Really, there is no mystery at this stage. When this initial draft is completed, it’s pretty obvious who the Murderer is, and there’s a lot of scenes in this draft that won’t make it to the final version. They’re written just for me, the all-seeing, all-knowing author. That’s why no one ever, EVER reads Draft One.

Next, I take Suspect #1 and tell his story. He generally has motive and means, or motive and opportunity. Weaving Suspect #1’s plot into Draft One, I expect the introduction (or focus) on the character to push the story off into a new direction. It has to, as Suspect #1 is a distraction from Murderer. Scenes are rewritten, as they are impacted by the suspicious behavior of Suspect #1. Many of the Murderer’s scenes in Draft 1 are eliminated, as those actions are now happening in the background. Sometimes the best clue is in what’s missing, and not in what’s presented. Finally, once this plot is completely interwoven, I have a completed Draft Two. You’re still not going to read it.

Drafts Three and Four incorporate Suspects #3 and #4, respectively. They generally have secrets to hide, and could have plausibly murdered the Victim. However, a sharp reader will notice that they don’t have a motive, or means, or opportunity. As their plots develop, and the story evolves with these added characters, the over-all mystery deepens, and the true Murderer gets buried within its pages. The murderer is never invisible though; he’s just no longer obvious. And, nope, you still don’t get to read it. So stop asking.

With a Fifth Draft, I add the irrelevant but juicy subplots. These light plots generally focus on character development. This where the romance heats up, the drinking problems surface, and romantic entanglements complicate the character’s lives. I love this stage because this is where I get to shrug off the formulaic structure of the genre and have fun. These subplots create further opportunities to overshadow all those clues to the Murderer just sitting there, waiting to be discovered. And, the more emotional the scenes are, the more delicious the misdirection.

At this point, I let a select few read the manuscript, but it’s far from finished. Though it needs to be scrubbed, the mystery is in place: a murder has been committed, the sleuth enters because the killer, unseen by both the sleuth and the reader, has already been there, and the suspects are in place, all holding up billboards screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!”

The Art of Planting Clues in a Murder Mystery

canstockphoto9200023Are you struggling with planting all those subtle clues into your murder mystery, and looking for some tips on how to misdirect your reader while still playing fair? Check out this informative article “Don’t Drop Clues, Place Them Carefully” by Stephen Rogers published on

In it, he explains that “when planting clues, there are a number of tricks you can use.

  • Clues can have ambiguous meanings. A large footprint implies someone with large feet or a small-footed person wearing large shoes.
  • Clues can point to several people. A diamond ring can implicate someone who wears diamonds, someone who sells them, or someone who steals them. It could also be a plant.
  • Clues can be misread. The detective jumps to a wrong conclusion. Will the reader follow?
  • Clues can unfold. The flat piece of metal discovered on page three makes no sense until its mate is discovered many scenes later.”

I hate that he calls them “tricks” though, as readers don’t like to be tricked. They want to be surprised. And his list above, and more within the article, explains a lot of DEVICES that a well-written mystery utilizes to keep the reader guessing. He also illustrates how to play fair.

As the article states, “clues should appear and be visible before they play their part. If the killer is arrested because of a fingerprint lifted from a shell casing, you want to mention the discovery of a shell casing if not describe the actual lifting of the print. If a shotgun is fired in the third act, you want to show the gun hanging over the fireplace in the first. (Chekhov reminds us that if you place a shotgun in the first act, you must have it fired by the third.) The reader should see the wires and mirrors but not recognize their significance. This is how the writer plays fair.”

The most brilliant nugget in the article though is his explanation of what not to do when burying a clue within a list.  He refers to a recurring example of a stealth helicopter as a being an important clue in previous sections, and then refers to again.

“So my boss hands me this folder with all the items I’m responsible for and tells me I need to tag them with inventory stickers. I start thumbing through the sheets. One metal desk, beige. One motorcycle. One filing cabinet. One laptop. One helicopter, stealth. One stapler. Fifteen desk chairs. Fifteen chairs? Why would I have fifteen chairs?”

“The danger of hiding a clue within a list is that readers may recognize a list is coming and skip ahead. While you can stand on high ground and berate readers for not savoring each and every word, this is not the way to build a fan base.”

That completely tripped me up, as I skipped right over the list. Then read the final sentence and said, “Oh, yeah. He’s right. This is brilliant!”

If you’re currently writing a mystery and struggling with clue placement, jump over to “Don’t Drop Clues, Place Them Carefully.” It’ll get you thinking…

Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Hiding Clues in a Murder Mystery Novel

Keyhole with hidden murdererWriting 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.