Test the Integrity of Your Mystery – Part 3

Continued from last Friday.

Now that your Scene column is filled with the various locations and the action that takes place in each scene and your Character column lists every character who appears or is referenced in those scenes, let’s move on to the facts.

Information.

In this column, you will note the clues and pertinent information passed on to the reader during the scene.

Avoid Ommisions

Once this column is complete, omissions stand out. In Agatha Christie’s “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”, Hercule Poirot notices that the shoe on a battered corpse is old and worn, whereas the same exact shoe was new and shiny when he saw it on the woman shorty before–suggesting that the woman he saw alive was an imposter. If Christie had not included a scene allowing Poirot to get a good look at the imposter’s shoe, then the detective’s discovery would have seemed omniscient, rather than logical.

If you have a scene at the end of your story where the sleuth tells all, you can make a list of her summation in the information column and cross reference it with earlier information given just to make sure you’re playing fair. For example:

“I noticed a hidiously large footprint in the begonias which could only have belonged to Gregor the Giant who worked with the traveling circus.”

Did you give the reader these clues ahead of time?
Is there a scene where you show the discovery of the footprint?
Is there a scene where you let the reader know the circus is in town? Maybe a character is perusing the local paper and saw an advertisement.
Is there a scene where the slueth at lease sees mention of Gregor the Giant, if not the giant himself?

Create Balance

Once you see all of the information as it is relayed to the reader, you may also find that you could time a revelation to better advantage. If all of the clues cluster around the beginning or end of the story, the middle will drag.

It’s especially disheartening to read an entire story where not much happens only to have the clues pop up on the final pages. (Trust me. I just read a book like this. I loved the characters, loved the dialogue, but by the last quarter of the story, I didn’t care. Where was the detection? This was supposed to be a mystery!)

It feels as if the writer is saying, “Oh! I forgot to tell you.” and “Let me get this bit in here because the ending doesn’t make any sense as it stands now!”

In Plain Site

When you look over the information imparted, you might find that you tell too much, or tell it too early. It’s not very satisfying to read a mystery when you know who the murderer is by page twenty-five. Maybe the clue could be sublter. A giant footprint outside the library window when there is a giant in town is not very subtle. What about two narrow, deep holes? What could have made these? If your references to the circus aren’t over the (big) top, it may come as a surprise to find that the holes were made by Sammy the Stilt-walking Man.

When I first began reading Agatha Chrisie, I found myself crying, “Cheat!” at the end of her books. Then I would page back through and find that the clues were all there! But they were subtle. I highly recommend writers read her books to discover how to lay a path of clues without using neon signs.

That’s it for Information. Next week I’ll show how Questions Asked can ensure there aren’t any loose ends.

2 thoughts on “Test the Integrity of Your Mystery – Part 3”

  1. Writing a Clue Timeline is a great way to see if your pacing is right, balancing highs and lows, but it also lets you see if you have placed your clues evenly. This part of your writing series will be very helpful to mystery writers. Thanks, Jackie.

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