Sunday, August 30, 2009

Visual Writing Prompt: Hiding Clues

A writer of mystery/suspense/thriller has to hide the clues to the killer, bad guy, answer. Other writers also have to hide things - action/adventure or even fantasy. In almost any book, something is hidden, waiting to be revealed or found out. It’s the author’s job to keep it hidden until time for the reveal. If the reader guesses the ending too soon, the book is a disappointment.

So the author hides things. He may not let us in on the bad guy’s thoughts, or at least not in on all of them. She may hide clues in lists of seemingly unimportant information, one clue among many others. He may put something in plain sight, but have the protagonist, and thus the reader, dismiss it as wrong or inconsequential. The truth may be thrown in among many lies and misdirection. But the clues have to be there. The writer has to play fair (to a certain extent).

Things can be in plain sight, while still hidden. Can you find the golfer among the many palm trees?

You’ll have to look close. He’s not readily visible even if the picture were blown up in size. The golfer (the clue) is in among the palm trees (the distractions), but there are pointers to him (the golf carts), if you’re paying attention. (And if this picture shows up larger in the post than it does in Compose mode.)
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  1. I wish I were able to do the hiding game in writing. I don't think I'm that smart. It intimidates me. If it's done badly, it can be very bad.

  2. Interesting post, Helen. Agatha Christie was a master at hiding clues. She'd always make it very fair, frequently 'hiding' the clues in plain sight but using a distraction to call attention elsewhere (an argument that suddenly erupts, or she'd point out something else--red herring--that would appear to be a clue.)

    I did NOT see the golfer at first. I believe I need more coffee. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. That's the trick, isn't it? The most wonderful stories are the ones that blindside you with the ending and yet, when you go back and read, all of the clues were there.

  4. Heck, these 38-year-old eyes can't even see the palm trees in the picture!

  5. I actually did find the golfer right away, which surprises me!

    Since I write true-to-life types of books, the hidden items are usually dormant feelings.

    The big twists & turns of mystery novels I could never achieve - probably a good thing I don't write them.

    L. Diane Wolfe “Spunk On A Stick”

  6. I THINK I see the golfer but I'm not quite sure. Helen, will you be posting his whereabouts tomorrow?

    Lori, you mentioned that the hiding game intimidates you...same for me. It requires a cleverness I don't possess which, sadly, has been proven! I wrote a flash fiction piece a year ago that had an aha! ending and my writing group was mixed about it; I didn't offer clues in the piece and in fact, they said the way I wrote it was misleading (which I didn't realize until they pointed it out). The other half didn't mind being misled because the aha! moment was powerful enough for them. 50/50 is NOT good.

    I've tried many times to revise the story, taking out all the misleading aspects and providing clues, but it only proved to weaken the piece.

    I don't possess the talent to fix it and it is always the story that floats around in my "to be revised" folder that I am petrified to touch again! But, darn it, I so want to make it work!

    Ach, I better stick to essay writing :-)


  7. Misleading the reader while still "playing fair" is a lot harder than it looks. Unless the writer is a great plotter/outliner, it usually involves a lot of revision. Or maybe that's just me I'm talking about, as I am a terrible outliner and my plots tend to develop as I write them.

  8. This has never been a problem for me (thank heavens) which is why I write mysteries! I use many of the methods that you have listed and by the end every reader could (emphasize could) figure it out. I can't write mysteries where the reader doesn't have a chance - I've read some and they just make me mad.

    Many moons ago I used to write mysteries for theatre companies to use as fundraisers. My rule of thumb was that if one table (approximately 12 people) out of the entire audience of 20 tables (or so) guessed the solution then it was a success. More than 2 tables - it was too easy. No one guesses - too hard. I wrote these mysteries on and off for 10 years so that was where I cut my teeth on how to successfully hide clues (not to mention dialogue and characters).

    Wonderful post, Helen. Love the picture!


  9. Sounds like you could be teaching your process at conferences or in writing classes, Elspeth.

    It is difficult to do. And I suspect it's easier to do if you outline and know the clues you're going to drop and where, and how you'll distract attention from them - before you write the manuscript. But it's not impossible to go back and add them in, just more time consuming.

    I was hoping the picture would show up larger on regular computers (I use a laptop). The golfer, Lisa, is indeed in the picture. You'll notice two sandtraps sort of centered in the picture. The leftmost of the two sandtraps has a golf cart near the front and another behind it. Two trees to the right of the golfcart in the back is the golfer. He happened to be centered right on the palm tree and sort of blended in with it. (I took this picture in Miami at the Doral golf course.)

  10. Clever way to approach an interesting topic, Helen! For me hiding clues in a sensible way that doesn't cheat the reader involves a well planned plot map at the start.

  11. I'm trying to play with a few well-hidden clues in my WIP by putting them in plain sight along with other similar things that are not clues. By focusing on a bigger action/situation, as Elizabeth suggested, the incidentals don't seem very important.

    Another way to hide a clue is to list details in a scene. The clue is the important thing that should be on the list but is not. For example, in my WIP the character is about to leave the house and she turns the air conditioner off, unplugs the coffee pot, and locks the door as she leaves. What you don't catch is what she doesn't do, although that will be very important later in the story.

  12. That's the way to do it, Patricia, not the way Helen did. I still don't believe there is a golfer in the photo, regardless of what she says!

    Hide in plain site, mixing them up with others that are not clues--that's the key. And wait until they forget about it, before you bring it back in and let them learn they were right!!

  13. I'll see if my technically savvy hubby can make this picture bigger because now I HAVE to see that golfer...I must...

  14. Being sneaky and hiding things in plain site is the hallmark of a good mystery/suspense/thriller writer.

  15. Lisa, I still have the original and email it to you. I cropped it to fit on the blog.


    Jean says a mystery/suspense/thriller writer has to be sneaky. Considering what Patricia is doing in her WIP, I'd say she qualifies.


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