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PLOTTING A MYSTERY, part two
PLOTTING A MYSTERY
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PLOTTING A MYSTERY, part two

PLOTTING A MYSTERY, PART TWO: PLANTING CLUES AND RED HERRINGS
   There are several techniques to use for dropping clues and hiding secrets. You can divert attention from a clue with an action or a joke; you can drop clues in dreams; you can hide clues in lists of interesting things; or you can use dialogue for misdirection.
  1. Distract the reader with action. J.K. Rowling does this at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with Scabbers the rat; he's mentioned as being old and missing a toe and the shopkeeper notes that an ordinary rat shouldn't live more than three years. Just as they begin to wonder why Scabbers is different, the action comes in, when Crookshanks the cat jumps on Ron's head and sets off chasing Scabbers. This diverts the attention from the clues.
  2. Distract the reader with jokes or ridiculous suggestions. In my Missy Jenkins novels, one of Missy's habits is spinning wild theories. Her husband, her best friend Ronnie, and Ronnie's husband, police officer Mark, are constantly complaining about her crazy ideas. That's why when she comes up with a viable theory, the reader doesn't recognize it. The clue is overlooked.
  3. Drop clues in dreams. This technique is quite common because all of us have weird dreams that make no sense at one point or another. J.K. Rowling uses dreams throughout the Harry Potter series; I use dreams in my mystery series as well. As in the previous example with the ridiculous theories, parts of the dream are fantasy, while other parts can be clues.
  4. Hide clues in lists of interesting things. This is almost the same as hiding clues in the middle of a bunch of crazy ideas, but this time you may be giving the readers a laundry list of ordinary items, none of which mean anything--except for the one important clue embedded within the list. Example: Read The Maltese Falcon and note the first time it is mentioned in the story.
  5. Use dialogue for the characters to misdirect the reader and each other. Have them talk at cross purposes; hedge; disagree; lie. It goes a long way toward making them sound human. Also: Sometimes the clue is what didn't happen or wasn't said or isn't there. Remember Conan Doyle's dog that didn't bark in the night?
  6. The Red Herring: Planting a False Clue. The actual red herring was smoked, then dragged across the trail to distract hunting dogs from their objective. Fictional red herrings serve the same purpose; they suggest attractive prey, a trail to follow, that ultimately leads nowhere--a dead end. Use them sparingly or they get annoying and lose their power.

Coming soon - PART THREE: "THE USUAL SUSPECTS--WHAT'S THEIR MOTIVE?"

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Red herring is an effective way to distract the audience from the main culprit of an on-going mystery. I myself have been fooled by many red herrings places smartly in movies. In I-Robot starring Will Smith and Bridget Moynahan, the movie showed Calvin, the humanoid robot, actually killing his "father," the main scientist at the robot lab and his creator. He was the one who killed the scientist but the plot is deeper than that. There was also another usual suspect, the director of the robot lab. In the narration they were not mentioning another robot, VICKI, the heart of the whole operation who has become sentient that she plotted to kill the scientist because he suspected VICKI capable of actually thinking and deciding for herself.
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