A lot of the fun of writing mysteries is devising clues and red herrings and then figuring out how to insert them so the reader has a fair chance of solving the mystery but not a cake walk. For those who are new to the mystery genre, red herrings are the false clues that are designed to mislead the reader and the detective or sometimes, just the detective.
At the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference, I attended a panel with authors Jill Orr, Mariah Fredericks, Rich Zahradnik, and Saralyn Richard, who represented a variety of subgenres. With their advice and my own experience, here are some points to keep in mind when using clues and red herrings
Give clues and red herrings the same emphasis.
By that, I mean each should have close to the same amount of space on the page. If the detective finds three clues but only thinks about one in depth, the reader knows it has significance and the two others not as much. Giving almost equal space to all three will make it harder for the reader to determine which are the real clues and which are red herrings.
In “A Rose from the Ashes,” my teen detective Rae Riley must find out which one of three men is her father and the person who tried to murder her mother. One man could be both. To prevent myself from telegraphing the ending, I had share Rae two scenes with each suspect, creating interactions that might point to their guilt or innocence.
A problem with this approach is that I could waste a lot of space, and the reader’s time, on a red herring. So…
The red herring should reveal something important to the story.
To the story, not necessarily the mystery. The red herring can enhance a character, revealing some aspect of their personality or history. For example, the detective is sure an elderly woman is guilty when associates think she’s wrong. Later in the story, it’s shown that the grandmother of the detective abused her. Now the reader understands the detective saw similarity between the suspect and her grandmother and let her past sway her judgement.
This kind of red herring provides depth and fallibility to the main character. It’s difficult for some mystery writers to let their detective makes mistakes. No one wants to follow a detective who’s a blithering idiot. But by allowing the detective to fall for a red herring based on who he is makes the mistake more realistic and understandable.
Red herrings should mislead readers. Not trick them.
Above all else, writers must play fair with the readers of a mystery. Here is the way for me to check if I’m playing fair. This approach was recommended by the panel at Killer Nashville. Once the reader has discovered the solution, she should be able to go back through the story and see how the clues pointed to the solution. If she can’t, she has been tricked.
For example, the solution to the mystery hinges on knowing the Etruscan language. But the reader doesn’t know this is the key until the detective says so during the climax, adding that he’s studied Etruscan for years.
If a mystery offers that kind of solution, the reader has every right to throw the book across the room. If it’s an ebook, I hope she can restrain herself.
What mysteries have you read that used clues and red herrings particularly well? Or ones that tricked you?
If you’d like to win a copy of either anthology I’ve had stories published in, along with others prizes, check out my giveaway.