(This post appeared simultaneously on MissDemeanors.com)
Mystery and thriller writers are often asked – how do you plot your books? For the truth of the matter is that whether the author plots in advance or flies by the seat of their pants and then fixes, the mystery/thriller writer is paying attention to the clues and red herrings that bring their story to a satisfying end. This makes clues and red herrings the mystery writers stock in trade. They aren’t, however, all of the stock needed to arrive at a satisfying end. I like to think that misdirection is the mystery writer’s friend.
What are some strategies for misdirection?
– Innocent characters with strong motives (who must be clearly shown to be innocent later)
– Innocent character at the scene of the crime (meaning no motive, but the reader will wonder if the motive will be revealed)
– Guilty character who appears innocent (no evidence of motive, weapon or opportunity)
– Clues that can be interpreted in multiple ways (and are)
– Unreliable narrator (this has been added to the list of popular misdirection techniques in recent years)
Strategies require thought and application. Writers use post its and charts, they think about foreshadowing, investigate the rabbit holes of misdirection, and plot backwards from the end to check the sequence.
The critical part of all these strategies is a satisfactory conclusion to each point. For what is truly important is that the reader buy into the ending. There is a fine line between the reader identifying the guilty party too early and not being able to identify them at all. The solution should evolve, so that when it is revealed it is the nicest mix of surprise and a satisfied ‘of course’!
What are your favorite endings? Was it a big reveal or the steady inevitable construction of clues? (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was one of my first mystery reads and the conclusion was a complete surprise, but when I was reminded of the chair being moved I thought Agatha Christie was playing fair. The clues were all there.)