Mystery Writing

How Many Clues are Too Many in Mystery Writing?

I’m working on the first novel in the Murder Script mystery series. After drafting the first chapter, I sent it to the incredible edible Evelyn Lafont for her unique brand of writing critique. You see, Lafont is one of very few friends who wouldn’t hesitate to hand me my ass on a platter if my work sucked. She’s not afraid that I’ll bite her head off (apparently I need to be a bigger meanie), so she can give me the blunt feedback I want.

I’m (still) working on edits based on her critique, and her feedback was fantastic. She helped me see things from a different perspective, and that’s so important in any kind of writing. I find it’s especially so with fiction. I know what’s coming in my head, so things make sense to me. But she’s able to point out what might not make sense to a reader approaching it without my warped little mind getting in the way.

Every bit of advice she gave, I’m incorporating into my edits. Except one. She worried that there may have been too much information about the characters — not in an overly descriptive way, but in a way that left her wondering which information she was “supposed” to remember by the end of the book. It’s important to note that she’s not a regular mystery reader, so the “should I remember this?” thoughts also could have partly been a result of that.

Why did I ignore the suggestion to cut back on the potential clues? In this case much of that was intentional. They were things that it made sense to bring up in the beginning to differentiate the characters (there’s a party scene so differentiating them from the start felt important). They were also things the sleuth would logically already know or quickly find out at that point in the story.

It really came down to a personal decision as a mystery reader more than a mystery writer. Personally it drives me crazy when there are only a few facts tossed my way that might make someone look guilty. I don’t like knowing who the killer is until the end — not feeling certain until just before the reveal. As long as the facts are things the sleuth would know or logically find out, I think a reader should know about them too. Part of fun of reading a mystery is not knowing which facts to hold onto and which to let go of. I love it when something seems relevant but not so much that I harp on it, and then at the end I have an “aha!” moment when it suddenly hits me that I know the answer somewhere deep in my mind.

I also look at it this way. Any sleuth or detective is going to get more background information than they really need. It’s their job to sort through it, identify multiple suspects, and narrow it all down. I don’t want to underestimate the intelligence of readers and their ability to do the same, right alongside the sleuth.

That’s not to say I want to plant facts that would make the reader suspect everyone right off the bat. By the end of the first chapter my hope is that they’ll be clear on who the likely victim is and they’ll know of at least two or three potential motives. Of those, one would be the strong motive of the sleuth herself. While I don’t want readers to honestly believe she did it, they need to honestly believe and understand why the police might think she did it.

In the case of this book, the victim wasn’t particularly liked. And that’s also a reason for wanting multiple motives clear before she even dies. The extent to which she’s hated will be important to the rest of the book as everything else unravels.

So how many clues should you have in a mystery novel? I’d say enough to keep the reader guessing between two or three possible suspects, and not quite enough for them to figure it out until your sleuth is just about ready to do the same.

As for this novel, I’ll leave the basic clues as they are for now. They’ll feel better in context when there’s more of the story to move onto rather than leaving you wondering with only one chapter. Or at least that’s my hope. And if it doesn’t work out that way, well, that’s what the editing process is for later. While I’m trying to improve the first chapter before moving on, I don’t want to let that hold things up for too long or get stuck in a write-edit-write-edit process. I’m more of the “get it all out and clean it up later” type. And if beta readers of the full novel say some of the same things, then I can bang my head against the wall and bow down to the great insight (and enviably-awesome hair) of Evelyn Lafont down the road.

What are your thoughts? Do you read a mystery and wonder if you should hold onto every background fact you read? Or do you just read through, and wait for those “aha!” moments when the little things pop back into your head? How many suspects do you think you should have throughout the course of 70-80,000 words? At what point does being torn between possibilities become more obnoxious than thought-provoking? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment and tell me what you think.

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