So happy to introduce to you, author V.L. Adams! In her guest post “Start with the End: Leaving Clues in a Mystery”, V.L. discusses the topic every mystery writer fears–writing a mystery that isn’t the least mysterious–and a way to tackle this problem. Take it away, V.L!
Anyone who’s read more than a few mysteries has probably read a story where they could tell you “whodunit” before the halfway point. When I started my mystery novel, The Source of Smoke, I was petrified that readers would figure out my ending, so keeping the mystery alive was always at the top of my mind.
I wish I could say I had a beautiful outline when I wrote the book and worked off it as I made my first draft. Unfortunately, that’s not the way my brain works. I tried to plan but only had a rough idea of the novel’s middle. What I did have going for me, though, was that I knew the end.
Once I established in my mind how and why the ending happened, I used that knowledge to determine what clues I would leave. When I thought about which hints to drop throughout my novel, I sorted the clues into two categories: motivation and logistics.
Why did they do it? Was it love, money, jealousy? Were they trying to keep a secret? A motive isn’t necessary to prosecute a criminal case, but prosecutors will tell you that it’s crucial to the jury. The same can be said for a mystery novel—if you don’t have it, you’ll leave your reader disappointed.
Writing a mystery is also much easier when you know the character’s reasoning from the beginning. As you’re putting together your scenes and chapters, find the opportunity to show their motive to the reader. When done right, you can demonstrate motivation with as little as a glance or a few words in a conversation. It’s about dropping breadcrumbs. The reader doesn’t have to look down and see them immediately, but they’ll be disappointed at the end if you never dropped them at all.
Could A kill B? Are they strong enough? Do they have an alibi? Mystery readers are looking at every character asking these questions. There are many different ways to approach these possibilities; how you tackle them will vary with the story and character. You may create an alibi for every character but then drop clues that show how one character could have fabricated their statement. Does the corroborating witness have a reason to lie for this person? Did the person looking into the crime thoroughly check the backup details?
Logistics is another excellent area to show your reader things. You don’t want to say, “She was so strong she could throw a grown man in the ocean,” but maybe you could show a photo of her winning her state wrestling championship in high school.
It’s helpful to know not only how your villain committed the act but also where all your other suspects were at the time of the crime. That way, you can not only drop information as to the actual culprit, but you can also sprinkle false breadcrumbs, better known as red herrings.
It may take a few passes through your manuscript to figure out which clues you want to drop and where, but that’s why you edit. If you know your ending when you begin, you can think about the different ways to leave breadcrumbs on logistics and motivation as you go. Beta readers (people who go through the manuscript prior to publishing for the purpose of giving feedback) are invaluable for testing the number of clues you use and the right places. You’ll know you’re there when your beta reader tells you they didn’t see the ending coming, but it all made sense once they were there.
For more posts on writing mysteries, click here.
Winner of a 2022 Firebird Book Award in the New Fiction category.
What if a convicted murderer is innocent?
Since Charlie’s sister was killed, Charlie has dedicated herself to being the perfect guardian for her niece — even if it means the painful sacrifice of moving back to the hometown she’d wanted to leave for good. Her sister was murdered by her boyfriend in a crime of passion; case closed — or so Charlie thought.
A series of letters ignites Charlie’s curiosity about the convicted murderer’s innocence. As she digs deeper, she sees things others may have hidden or ignored. She comes to an impasse where she has to decide what, if anything, she’s going to do about it.
Why won’t the universe let Charlie move on? How would someone like her catch a killer anyway?
We often think of heroes as martyrs, but ordinary people can make a huge difference in the lives of others when they’re willing to ask difficult questions. Lovers of small town murder mysteries will find themselves muttering “Just one more chapter, one more chapter…”
V. L. Adams earned her B.A. in photojournalism from the University of Central Oklahoma and her J.D. from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. A life-long lover of fiction, she always dreamed of writing her own book one day. No idea ever felt quite right until her debut novel, The Source of Smoke, a story about a possible wrongful conviction and an ordinary woman asking unordinary questions. She lives outside Dallas, works in non-profit, and spends her days with her best friend and husband, taking care of their three lovely children and nurturing her Harry Potter obsession. Connect with her on her website and on Instagram.