Wednesday, September 2, 2009

John-- hiding a clue

John reminded me I meant to talk about how to hide a clue in a sentence. The trick is to do the sentence WRONG, because the clue is the most important thing, and usually you want to put that in the main clause or at the end. But to hide it (while still being fair and putting the clue in there), you should think about burying it, like in the middle of a series of three or four, or in a subordinate element, like a dependent clause or a modifier. Like:
Kaylie pawed through the trunk, tossing out a string of fake pearls, an old Bible, and a Colt-45. She couldn't find that hat anywhere.

The old Bible is the clue, but it's in the most dismissive place, and followed also by something dramatic (a pistol). It's all about distraction, I guess!

Those of you who have written mystery or suspense, how have you buried clues?

Alicia

26 comments:

Jordan said...

The first thing I could think of was to play the clue out fully, but with an alternate explanation and in a completely unrelated context—i.e. with the POV character who's not investigating the crime, in her subplot, etc.

I'm not sure that makes sense without an example. . . .

Jami G. said...

Alicia,

I completely agree with the way you put it. You build the sentence wrong. :)

Another important thing you did in your example was to have another sentence directly after the clue, directing the reader's attention somewhere else. So, you should not only bury the clue within a sentence, but you should also bury that sentence within a paragraph as well.

Think of it as trying to have the information go in one ear and out the other. Don't let the clue soak in to the reader's thoughts before you distract them with something else right away.

This can be used with telling actions of a character as well as objects. A character can do 'a' in the first half of a sentence, and then do 'b" in the second half of a sentence. If the next sentence continues with the 'b' action, the reader forgets about the 'a'. This can work even if the first half of the sentence with the clue is the main clause. I'll sometimes purposely have a longer second half with modifiers to make reader's memory of the 'b' action "heavier".

I've said before that I love this technique. I've been able to repeat a clue 3 times and still not have readers pick up on it because it's buried so well. :)

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, how about an example? :)
A

Edittorrent said...

Jami, you too-- example?
A

Jami G. said...

Going along with Jordan's comment, another way I mislead readers is to have the narrator think things through and come to the wrong conclusion. It's not quite an "unreliable narrator" per se, in that they're not doing it on purpose, it's just that they're wrong. :)

I can't think of an example off the top of my head, but think of the character wondering why something happened. Their internal monologue might be something like: Could it be "a"? Or could it be "b"? No, maybe it was "c". And then have the character go off on the assumption that it's "c". As long as you build a strong enough case for why the character believes it's "c" and can convince the reader of the same, the reader will assume that the character knows what they're talking about. However, you have to make sure that you make the case for "c" very clear, or else the reader will latch on to the more accurate reason of "b" and think your character is TSTL. :)

Jami G.

Jami G. said...

Okay, I don't want to give away my real clues :) , but here's a quickie example of burying a clue in a paragraph:

She rushed to the hallway, stubbing her toe on a heavy book on the floor, and glared at his retreating back. "If you walk out that door, I'll never forgive you." Obviously, he didn't care about her threat, as he instead waved absently and strolled away.

The clue there would be the heavy book. However, it's been relegated to a modifier clause in the middle of a sentence. It's also followed by several sentences continuing the idea at the end of the first sentence.

Lame example, but the best I could come up with off the top of my head. :)
Jami G.

Jami G. said...

As for an example of burying a clue within the main clause:

She rubbed gingerly at her toe that she'd stubbed on the book, feeling more vulnerable than ever now that he'd left her. Alone. How was she supposed to raise their daughter by herself?

Again, the clue is the book, but by making the following clause more emotional, it has more weight with the reader than the main clause, especially as it's followed by other sentences building on that emotion.

Jami G.

Jordan said...

Hmm. . . . I hear you, Jami—hard to give an example and not give away my own clues! This is pretty similar to what Jami was saying about drawing the wrong conclusions.

Let's say that your plot is structured so that the hero is a detective and there's been a murder at our heroine's office (her supervisor was killed [with a staple gun, which our heroine doesn't know], and there's an obvious suspect). In her free time, our heroine has been helping her best friend start her own cafe.

Our heroine is helping to decorate the cafe (in her subplot). Her BFF asks her to hang the grapevine lattice on the ceiling, since she's afraid of heights. The heroine takes the lattice and the staple gun up the ladder and obliges.

But really, the BFF is avoiding the staple gun because she killed the coworker (insert motive here). But because we're out of context, given a plausible alternate explanation, and not in an investigative POV (and note the BFF doesn't mention the weapon of choice), it's easy to dismiss it (as long as there's a clear purpose in the scene, too).

Plus, now the BFF can frame our heroine with her prints on the murder weapon.

(I'm writing a car chase in Chicago right now, and I thought of you, Alicia!)

John said...

Hi Alicia,

Thanks for that! Sorry I made you add another post. Good technique though, I'll remember that one :)

Cheers,

John

Murphy said...

I like to bury mine in dialogue within a scene where there is either important action taking place or some discovery to divert attention.
My example:(The set-up: the heroine is having major doubts about the hero - not because he's a vampire (hehehe) - but for other reasons entirely. Suddenly, she decides she wants to leave - only to discover the bedroom door is locked and she's locked in. Then she hears a tapping and remembers that on the far side of the room behind heavily lined drapes there's French doors that leads out to a patio. She rushes over and finds one of the reporters she had come to this manor with standing there. She's so happy to see him and to discover there's a means for escape that she quickly struggles to get the locks undone and opens the doors. And this is the conversation that follows:

“Sanders, are you okay? Damn, is your hair wet?”
“Yes,” she stuffed a damp chunk of it behind an ear and said, “I took a bath and that’s when I sa--”
“A bath?” His look was incredulous. “You’re being held hostage by a fucking Vampire and you took a bath?”
Rianna crossed her arms over her chest to ward off the cold as she defended herself. “Yeah, at the time I didn’t know I was being held. I only just discovered the door was locked a few minutes ago. And he’s not--”
“Here put this on,” he interrupted her explanation and shoved a down-filled ski jacket her way. “We don’t have time to chat. He’ll be back. He moves faster than lightning so we better hurry.”

Makes sense right? His reaction - her reaction, their need to expedite their departure - only? She didn't ask the 50,000 dollar question - which was: How did he know the hero was a Vampire? It's only later - when she does have time to think about this that she starts to worry she may have made the wrong choice. The clue was there - she was just too interested in escaping for other reasons - that she didn't see it until it was too late.
I think this misleads the reader as well. She's so frantic trying to get the locks undo and by the time she does - the reader is really on board with her getting the heck out of Dodge - and this guy is providing the means - add to this, him asking right off the bat if she's okay and I think the reader makes the assumption that he's on her side of things.

Jami G. said...

In editing, I'd probably change my second example to:

She gingerly rubbed at her toe that she'd stubbed on the book, wincing at her sense of fragility now that he'd left her. Alone. How was she supposed to raise their daughter by herself?

The words "wincing" and "fragility" tie into the action of "gingerly rubbing" and therefore make the second clause feel like a continuation of the first main clause. Which in turn, buries the clue about the book into something that feels like an irrelevant aside.

Jami G.

Jami G. said...

Yes, Jordan, good example. After thinking about it more, I was just going to add that sometimes I do this same thing with having the character make an observation. Just an observation. And then before the reader can get a chance to form their own opinion of why things are the way they are, you feed them a logical, reasonable explanation:

She scratched at her arms, legs, and face. Damn, every part of her body was itchy. Apparently, she hadn't been as careful to avoid poison ivy during her hike as she'd thought.

Even if you use words like "apparently" or "maybe" this works if the explanation is reasonable. Just as the character doesn't put 2 and 2 together to realize that her symptoms mean the bad guy has poisoned her food, neither will the reader. :)

Jami G.

Babs said...

In some of these examples I think there is a lot going on. Rushed, stubbing and glared. Those sentences are difficult to read and would make me suspicious. I don't know if I'm getting the purpose here.
I like what Murphy put together because as I read it I thought the guy WAS there to help the heroine so I could see how that could worked.

Jami G. said...

Babs,

Yes, if the sentence stood out from the rest of the tone of the book, it would make it suspicious. Our job as writers would be to make sure that it "flowed" naturally. These were just off-the-top-of-my-head examples and thus have no context. :)

Jami G.

Jami G. said...

Babs,

As an added thought, the purpose of these examples (including Alicia's) is to show the different ways to distract the reader. Because that's really all it comes down to. I make no claims that my examples were well-written. :) I was just trying to demonstrate how a character jumping to conclusions, or going off onto an emotional development, can direct the reader's attention to a different place before the information about the clue sinks in and gets processed by their brain. It's all about distraction. Does that help explain the point?

Jami G.

Wes said...

Great post!

Edittorrent said...

It is interesting to have to write towards readers who know to be suspicious -- they are LOOKING for buried clues. I remember reading a very good mystery where a coworker is just nice to the heroine, and I said, "He did it!" (The nice coworker.) I was right, but I'm not really sure what got my suspicions focused there. He wasn't overly nice, just nicer than he absolutely had to be. Maybe it was because he was nicer than anyone else in that cutthroat office.

Anyway, mystery readers are tough. :)
Alicia

Babs said...

Thank-you Jami. I guess I'm one of those tough readers.:) You're right about the examples. They do help. I think, though, the point I was trying to make is that I have never thought to bury anything out in the open like Murph's example. In a stacked sentence yes, I've done that, but not through character interaction. It seems much clearer that way. Something to think about.
Babs

Jami G. said...

Babs,

Yes, I guess the difference is in how much you, as the author, want the reader to process before you distract them. Some methods will lend itself to a completely unconscious recognition on the part of the reader, while others, such as Murphy's example, will tend to let the reader form a question, but then encourage them to forget it (in a go with the flow sort of way).

In either case, the context will matter greatly. Depending on how well you've built the situation surrounding the clue, you could leave readers not distracted enough and make them either suspicious (as you pointed out) or think that the character is TSTL. :) I'm not saying anything of the sort about Murphy's example, I just know that I've seen that technique fail more often than not. Maybe Murphy's example succeeds because it seems like she'd laid out the character's motivation enough that even if the reader disagrees with her decision, we're still sympathetic to how she reached it. :)

Jami G.

Murphy said...

I totally agree with you JG (your new call sign, remember?) and I love any treatment that's done right.:)

So just for fun, Babs, this one’s for you.:)

Jezebel rummaged through her purse, yanking out a condom packet speared by her house key, a bottle of warming to-the-touch message oil, and a Debbie does Dallas DVD. Now, where was that tootsie roll wrapper with Brad Pitt’s address on it?

What’s the clue here? The warming message oil to entice him? Naw, he’s already enticed. He wrote his number on the tootsie roll wrapper, right? And, I know I’d definitely be in - with that kick ass porn flick to go along with the oil - so, the clue is the speared condom. I mean, at my age, I’m not getting stuck raising a child on my own (okay bit of a stretch here because if the condom hadn’t been speared there wouldn’t be a possible child, BUT (:D) I’m also at an age where, (if there was one) I’m thinking (hehehe) I wouldn’t mind staying in one of those 35 room French Villas - So, yeah, that’s the clue.
Signed: Murphy who believes if you use the right enticements -- we're all human and we’ll fall for it.

em said...

Murphy, that's funny! I do think only a few people could make that work. You being one of them.
As ever, thanks for the laugh.
Em

Jami G. said...

Murphy,

I am not touching your ode to Brad Pitt with a 10-foot pole. LOL! Too funny!

Jami G.
(and apparently also known as JG... I think that's more encouraging than Poindexter anyway :) )

Murphy said...

Crap! Jezebel thought she was in for a great night....until she found out that she'd inadvertently picked up message oil instead of massage oil. SNAP!

Babs said...

Murphy! I choked on my tea!Especially with the message oil!:)
Thanks for the laugh.:)

Leona said...

JG and Murph, you guys are incorrigi:)

And the message oil? Hmm, distracted nicely from the speared condom. LOL

thanks for making my morning :D

Jami G. said...

Leona,

Yeah, I figured she'd typed "message" instead of "massage" on purpose. You know, kind of a distraction from the distraction. :)

Jami G.