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Fishing and Farming: Red Herrings & Planting Clues
by Scott Mortenson

You're a transit bus driver. You leave the station at 6:05 AM, and at your first stop you pick up three passengers. On your second stop you pick up five passengers. On your third stop, four get off and nine get on. On your fourth stop, three get on and five get off. On your fifth stop, eight get off and seven get on.

Got all that? Okay, good. What color are the bus driver's eyes?

A mystery is a puzzle -- the answer is there if the reader thinks about it in the right way. It is the author's job to give the reader the clues that point to the answer, then muck it up by throwing in clues that have nothing to do with the answer at all . . . but appears as if they do.

That's what just happened in the above puzzle. I gave you all the facts, and told you everything you needed to know. Did you answer the question correctly? I don't know the answer, because I don't know the color of your eyes, but if you were sitting there adding and subtracting passengers only to be asked a question which seemingly has no relevance, then I was successful in planting the clue and distracting you with the red herrings.

Clues are the facts that lead to the truth. Red herrings are fish that stink really bad and draw a lot of attention but don't mean anything because they don't actually exist. In other words, they are false clues.

Let's start with planting clues. This sounds really complicated to someone who wants to write a mystery story or novel -- How do I give clues to the reader without giving away whodunnit? Well, maybe it is a little complicated, but no worse than, say, devising a plot or creating an interesting character.

There are two ways to approach planting clues. One is for you highly organized types: Work the plot out beforehand. (Plotting is much more complicated than planting clues, but it's also a whole other workshop lesson.) If you know what's going to happen, then you'll have a better idea of where to plant the clues.

Approach #2 takes it a step further: Write the whole darn thing, then go back and plant the clues.

You might write a novel and not be able to decide whodunnit until you're 3/4 of the way through. Once decided, you can go back and add the appropriate clues. This type of writing can allow you to concentrate on the story and characters, then figure out the mechanics of the mystery later.

Or maybe the way you write may be different -- you may like to know everything before you write the opening line -- and that's great. But remember that you don't need to worry if you don't know all the answers. A lot may change as you work your way through. You may decide your idea doesn't work -- that you'd rather have the murder victim strangled than poisoned. Or the character you thought was a bad guy really isn't all that bad. These things will probably change the clues.

Just remember: Nothing is permanent, except change. But, like plots, that is a whole other workshop.

So, how do you plant a clue? That, too, depends. (I know, I know -- I wish there were hard and fast answers on this stuff, but we're talking about art here, a fluid, personal thing.) So, let me give you some examples.

If you're writing a "traditional" detective story, the clues will probably be more specific and follow the evidence collected by the detective -- who said what, alibis, murder weapons, bits of hair, fingerprints, etc. For example, you might have a brown hair discovered at the scene of the crime, and two or three suspects who have brown hair. Or maybe a partial fingerprint from the jilted lover on a can of Diet Coke found in a room of a house she claims she was never in. Those are pretty straightforward clues, and you're not planting them so much as using them as furniture -- you want the reader to notice them.

Dialogue can be a clue. That woman who says she was never in that house provides a clue. The neighbors who said they were awakened at 3:45 by a barking dog provide a clue. The man who says he never, ever wore such ugly shoes or never, ever hit his wife provides a clue. Whether it's an accurate clue or not is another matter.

Relationships can be a clue. If two brothers hate each other, or a husband and wife divorces, or rich Uncle Willy is mean to his adopted son, these can be clues -- especially if one of the parties is the murder victim.

You might think all these are relatively easy, and you'd be right. What's hard is determining when to reveal them to the reader. If the murder victim is found in chapter one, do you reveal the sibling rivalry in chapter 2 or chapter 20? Is the fingerprint discovered early on, or is it not found until later? You see, just like everything else in your story, presentation means everything.

Often, the circumstances of the plot you devise will allow the clues to plant themselves -- it's just up to you to cover them up a bit. In Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, for example, the clues are a dead woman, a glass with fingerprints on it, semen, and the fact that the main character, Rusty, was having an affair with the deceased. Since the novel is written in the first person -- from Rusty's perspective -- we get to know Rusty pretty well. We know about his career aspirations, his fears, the pain in his marriage, everything. And so when he tells us he didn't do it, we tend to believe him.

But we're also not stupid. As we discover the fingerprints are his and the semen is probably his, we hold a large piece of doubt that he may be lying to us. His hiding the glass, and trying to hide his relationship with the woman may just be ways of saving his skin from the truth. Yet Rusty is as confused as we are -- he wasn't with the woman the night she was murdered, he claims. So, who's setting him up?

Clues don't have to be physical. As you can see from how Turow sets up Rusty's situation (a.k.a. the presentation), there is the human element involved. Everything points to Rusty. Everything. Yet still, Rusty says he's innocent and we try to believe him, even as he conceals evidence and lies. He says he's trying to find out who really did it, and we go along. We may be skeptical, but we go along.

That's the power of writing. The clues are not just the glass and the semen and the affair. It's behavior and circumstance and lies and truth. We watch Rusty struggling to keep his marriage together, watch him stay one step ahead of the police, watch him try to keep his life in one piece. We care about him, we're rooting for him -- did he do it?

It's that doubt and uncertainty that you want to place in the reader's mind. Make them care, make them wonder. Toy with their logic.

This is where clues are less tangible -- as the writer, you present them logically and then reduce their significance by showing the human element. Confusing facts, in other words, with emotion.

If someone told you the plot to their novel without any embellishment, only saying this happened and that happened then this happened, you would probably guess very easily who the murderer is because it would all be very logical -- you're only given the plot highlights. But in the writing, the writer won't present the novel logically -- they will present it in a form that will bring the most understanding of the characters to the reader.

You may remember from an earlier workshop the character of the mistress Vanessa. When the reader first meets Vanessa, she comes across as a little brash, a little manipulative and a little insincere. Later, though, she's unpacking Tupperware and thinking about her husband who just asked her to move out. She is not brash or manipulative or insincere. She becomes sympathetic, showing feelings to the reader anyone can relate to -- especially those who have been through a romantic break-up.

Divorce, she thinks, is like separating the white from the yolk while each half still calls itself an egg.

The reader understands her better, maybe even likes her, even though she's been unfaithful to her husband, pays a bribe to a government official and her fingerprint is later found on the gun which killed her lover. See? The emotion clouds the clues.

Now I think you can understand why it's easier to plant clues when you know what's going to happen -- or after you write the story.

Red herrings are just as tricky as straightforward clues -- though sometimes more fun.

What exactly is a red herring? It is a clue which may or may not be a fact -- but even if it is, it doesn't lead to the truth. It leads somewhere else, and in mystery fiction, it's usually something the killer uses to distract the detective.

For example, let's say the body of Luke Warm was found lying on his living room floor one Sunday morning, bludgeoned to death with an electric can opener. The detective on the scene, Sam Snoopy, notices the dead man's watch is smashed -- perhaps the result of an unsuccessful attempt at warding off the blows from the can opener. The hands of the watch are stopped at 8:45, and since the coroner places the time of death at sometime during the evening before, Sam has a clue: Luke was killed at 8:45 PM Saturday.

Fingerprints turn up nothing, and there are several suspects since Luke was not the nicest of guys, but Sam's prime suspect is the singer for a local punk band, Lolly Gag, who also happens to be Luke's estranged wife. All the little things point to Lolly as the killer, and Sam is just itching to arrest her. The only problem is that Lolly has an airtight alibi -- she and her band, The Phlorescent Phlegm, were seen by lots of people as they played a sleaze bar from 8 PM on Saturday to closing at 2 AM Sunday.

There goes that suspect, Sam thinks. If Luke was killed at 8:45 and Lolly was on stage at 8, then she couldn't have done it.

Or could she?

In your hands, the story can go in many directions, one of them being that Lolly really did kill Luke by conking him with the can opener -- at 7 PM on Saturday. After conking him, she changed the time on Luke's watch to 8:45 -- when she knew she'd be on stage and have an alibi -- and smashes the watch so it would stop running. Thus, she created a red herring -- a fact which hid the truth.

A red herring is a diversion. It is something created by the killer to throw the sleuth off the trail. In Presumed Innocent, it is the semen found in the dead woman's body -- and what a clever red herring!

If you were the detective investigating the death of a nude woman in her apartment, and your suspect's fingerprints and semen were found at the scene, you'd be pretty confident you had an open-and-shut case. After all, if it's Rusty's former lover found nude and dead, and those are Rusty's fingerprints, and that is Rusty's semen, then it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this one out.

The problem is, Rusty didn't do it.

Yeah, sure Rusty was having an affair with the woman -- but it ended a few weeks earlier -- and yeah, those fingerprints on the glass are his -- but they're probably a month old. If you're Rusty, you'd be wondering how your semen got there.

Who would have access to that rather personal part of him?

Hhhhhmmmmm.

Wait a second . . . Wasn't his marriage in trouble? What if his wife discovered the affair? What if she was so hurt by it . . .

Let me ask again: Who would have access to Rusty's semen?

You see, a red herring can be a very good way of using facts to hide the truth -- and for framing an innocent man.

Of course, you don't need red herrings to write your mystery. You can have a whole series of clues -- all of them very true -- and only need two or three that will point directly to the real killer.

Clues are seeds. They plant question and doubt in the reader's mind. The farmer . . . er, author must cultivate them, water them, allow them to grow. Be careful with the true clues -- the ones that go directly to the solution. If you're a confident writer, and you know what you're doing, you can make them obvious and let them make a lot of noise, hoping the reader would think they're a smokescreen, only to be surprised that they are true. Or they can be gentle asides, almost an afterthought, not really considered serious. Or they can be part of a subplot, like Rusty's marital problems, which actually tie in to the main problem. Or they can be blended in with the false clues, or the facts that seem to matter but don't.

Red herrings are bait, leading the detective (and reader) away from the truth. But treat them like any other regular clue for the best effect. Make them part of the puzzle -- not the puzzle itself. If you make the detective run all over the place chasing nothing but false clues, the reader's going to have trouble believing when the real ones pop up, taking the air out of your literary sails, so to speak.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to read a mystery novel or short story. As you go through it, make a note of each clue -- maybe even writing them down. When you're done, study how the author used the clues: Which were true, which were false, and which had nothing to do with anything?

Questions are always welcome. Just e-mail me and I'll be glad to help.

Scott Mortenson is a writer and host of the Mystery & Suspense Writer's Workshop, and the Operations/Sales Manager for Trio Pines Casters, one of the country's most popular caster brands.  A former columnist and literary agent, he is also the sound engineer for Stonecreek Christian Church of Rancho Santa Margarita, California.  His short fiction and articles appeared regularly in the now-defunct Valley Vista Life, and his first novel will be published in 2000 under a pseudonym.

Scott lives with his wife, two children, five hamsters and Maxine -- The Cat Who Does Not Like Him.

1999 Secret Agent Man. All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission.

 

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