planting clues and red herrings

by Jill-Ayn
(Big Bear City, CA. USA)

Question: In a cozy mystery, what are the best ways to work in clues and red herrings?


Answer There seem to be two approaches in mystery writing.

Pantsers (who write by the seat of their pants) often write the first half or more of the book with no idea who the actual murderer is. They build up a lot of possible killers, giving hints of motives, unexplained details, emotionally charged relationships with the victim, etc.

Then, towards the end, they create a surprising and unexpected solution, often based on a character with a motive that hasn't been explored yet.

In the revision stage, they can remove some dead-end plot lines or details that contradict the solution (leaving the rest as red herrings) provide alibis, etc. They can also add subtle clues as to the real solution in this stage, in case there aren't any, so as to play fair with the reader.

Other writers will decide on the solution and false possibilities in the planning stage, so they know what clues and red herrings to plant as they write. For instance, if you know a certain character is innocent but you want to put him in the frame, you can insert coincidental details that make him or her look like a suspect.

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