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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…

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