5 ways to keep your reader guessing in a crime novel

Crime writing in Australia is having a big moment, and the best crime novels are the ones that keep readers guessing right to the very end.

My new novel The First Summer of Callie McGee is a middle-grade mystery novel set in a seaside village on the south coast of NSW. Hard-boiled crime it’s not (I’m describing it as a ‘cosy mystery for kids’), but writing it still required hitting the basic tenets of every successful crime story – and one of those is providing a satisfying ending.

The key to a satisfying ending for a mystery story of any kind is to keep the reader guessing – but to ensure the solution makes perfect sense within the world of your story. And that means that the clues to solving the puzzle must all be accessible to the reader – even if they’re well hidden in the narrative.

Here are five ways to keep your reader guessing in a crime novel.

Write the unexpected

According to New York Times bestselling author Ellie Marney a key question all crime writers must ask themselves is this: “What would the reader expect to happen right now?”

“Then discard those ideas,” Marney says. “You want to write the unexpected.”

The best crime novels are not predictable, which is not to say they aren’t logical. Think about the characters and world you’ve created for your story, and then push your story into unexpected territory, while still keeping events logical within that world.

Find more tips from Ellie Marney here.

Introduce a sub-plot

In this diagram, author Matt Rees outlines the major plot points of a five-act thriller novel, including the introduction of a sub-plot at the beginning of act two.

By this stage, your main character has entered the fray of the story, even if they are always one or two steps behind the villain. The role of your subplot is to add tension, mystery, romance, humour or suspense through the use of a second, shorter plotline.

It also gives you a way to distract your reader by changing the focus of their attention at key points in your main crime story, helping to keep them guessing until the end.

Think like a magician

International bestselling author Michael Robotham says that writing crime novels is similar to the work of a magician.

“At times, magicians want you to look at one hand while they’re doing something with the other hand,” he told wyza.com.au. “It’s about planting clues that are in plain sight but you plant them in such a ways that people register them but don’t realise they’re important.”

Placing key clues into your story in ways that seem irrelevant can be done through tiny details in dialogue, setting, a character’s internal conflict, and more.

It’s not about withholding information, but more about misdirection. Presenting key information within a list, for instance, or at moments of high action or emotion.

And remember Robotham’s top tip for writing crime stories: make your reader care. The more your reader is invested in a character and their internal and external troubles, the easier it is to hide the plot.

Plant your clues

Understanding your crime inside and out before you begin will help you to organise the delivery of the clues your character (and the reader) needs to solve it – even if you’re a pantser.

Research the crime you’re planning to make the centre of your plot – true crime books and podcasts, detective memoirs, interviews with experts, documentaries and other writers can all help you to gain the requisite knowledge, as well as building an arsenal of clues.

Then start at the beginning. Which clues are likely to be immediately revealed to your protagonist (such as those at a crime scene)? Which will be discovered as the story unfolds (forensic analysis, laboratory information, etc)? What will the protagonist discover through witness statements or the victim’s history?

Think about the ‘final clue’, which will bring the mystery together for your protagonist. Avoid the use of coincidence or an unexpected character introduced at the climax to fix everything.

Sprinkle your red herrings with care

Red herrings are the crime writing term for ‘false leads’. The term originates from the early 1800s when William Cobbett, an English journalist, used it to compare the media’s reporting at the time of Napoleon’s defeat to the practice of using smoked herring to distract hound dogs from chasing rabbits.

Herring are naturally a silvery-hue but turn reddish-brown when smoked. Hence, red herring.

In practice in a crime novel, red herrings are false clues designed to send a reader down the wrong path. They might include a character who seems suspicious, an object that seems relevant or important, an event that seems significant, a clue (often placed by an antagonist or secondary character) that sends investigators in the wrong direction.

To be effective, red herrings needs to be incorporated into the fabric of the story – not just dropped in when it lacks excitement, tension or conflict. One of the most effective red herrings is to give innocent characters in your story motive, means and opportunity to commit the crime. Equally effective is giving your reader no obvious reason to suspect your guilty character.

Sometimes what is not said is just as much a red herring as what is!

Remember, though, that keeping your reader guessing and then surprising them is one thing. But withholding information that can reasonably expect to know is another.

Two things will see your crime novel thrown at the wall: predictability, or a resolution that comes out of nowhere, with no logical explanation.

Author bio
Author Allison Tait smilingAllison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, Al is currently editing her latest middle-grade novel The First Summer of Callie McGee. Find out more about her at allisontait.com.

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