Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In Plain Sight

An earlier post, Hiding Bones, from Morgan Mandel got me thinking about the different ways writers - especially mystery writers - introduce red herrings so they sound like significant clues and provide significant clues in ways that make them seem insignificant.

One great tool for both is the simple list.

Try this exercise. Set a timer for fifteen seconds, then study the list below. When the timer sounds, look away and write down everything you remember from the list.

red icicles
broken wheel
blue sky
polka dots
gray beard
framed art
beach ball
Valentines Day
stack of books
blond hair
pill bottles

How'd you do? Most people will remember the first two and the last two or three. So where's the best place to hide good clue in plain sight? Where's the best place for red herring?

How many times have you read a mystery where a character or the narrator describes what is visible at the scene of the crime, on the first trip to a suspect's apartment, or even during a chance encounter with another character? When you first read the passage, nothing jumps out at you, but later, when you learn who did, or did not do the deed, you can plainly see the clue was available to you the whole time, it was just buried in the middle of a list. Sometimes the list will end with the protagonist focusing in on a detail at the beginning or the end of the list. This helps to detract the reader from the clue while directing the readers attention in another direction - often toward a red herring.

Here's an example from "Ink" by Mark Phillips, a short story in the anthology Sleeping With the Undead.

The one I wanted hung back from the others. She moved differently, every motion elegant, as if a prima ballerina were performing a ballet that imitated but perfected the motions of everyday life. I heard one of the others call her Lana, beckoning her closer to the picture of a scorpion they were trying to convince her to have etched into her butt. She would be the perfect canvas for my work. Couldn't be more than 18 or 19. Lovely green eyes. Nice body, curves where there were supposed to be curves. Dark hair, pale smooth translucent skin, deep cleavage revealed by a scoop front t-shirt. At the bottom of frayed jeans, even her feet in sandals were delicate, straight toes, nails painted lavender. her only jewelry, tiny silver quarter moons dangling from pierced ears.

There's a clue in that passage. Do you know what it is? I can't tell you - it would ruin the fun of figuring it out for yourself.

What other techniques do writers employ to hide clues in plain sight?

Charlotte Phillips is the co-author of the Eva Baum Detective Series, 2009 President for The Final Twist Writers Group and contributor to multiple blogs. Learn more about Charlotte and her books at:


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  1. It is a fine balancing act to plant clues and not be obvious, while also not hiding them so well they are not noticed. Thanks for the tips.

  2. Glad you liked my post. It's true some authors are very good at dropping in clues in spots you least expect them, so later we can get that aha moment!

    Morgan Mandel

  3. Morgan,

    I always learn from your posts and they generally spawn new ideas as well. In fact, I think I could start a new blog called "Morgan made me think..."

  4. Maryann,

    Yes. I love to read a well-written mystery where the author hid those clues well. Then I can go back, see what was done, and learn.


  5. Enid,

    I didn't do to great either and I wrote the list.


  6. Good post Charlotte. Hiding clues is indeed an art. You can't cheat, but you can't be obvious either.

    Straight From Hel


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