October 8, 2020
The Clue-Theory-Test Method of Plotting Mysteries
For many writers trying mystery writing for the first time, one of the things that feel the hardest is leaving clues for the reader. So let's begin by considering what constitutes a clue. Most of the time, characters don't rush to something, point, and shout "a clue!" Instead, you can think of clues as things that turn the character's focus and actions in new directions. Sometimes he'll be heading in the right direction (even if for the wrong reasons) and sometimes he'll be heading in the wrong direction.
Mystery Case Study (Again)
For example, suppose my story is a young chapter book about a missing classroom hamster named Melvin. Let's think of it as The Mystery of the Missing Melvin. Now the story begins when our main character, Cal, and his best friend Dot make their daily trek to Melvin's cage to visit the fuzzy little critter. He discovers Melvin is missing. In a way, the discovery of the empty cage is the first clue. This is the moment when the story pivots from being about Cal's visit to Melvin's cage and turns into the search for Melvin. This is an important element of clues, they pivot action and push the detective in a specific direction based on the detective’s theory about the clue.
So what does Cal do when he discovers the empty cage? He immediately comes up with a theory. Maybe Melvin escaped! He and Dot look over the cage carefully. They check all the possible escape points but all of the doors are securely hooked and fastened with twist ties. If Melvin had escaped, he certainly wouldn't have twisted the tie back on. That is the second clue because it turns us in a different direction and Cal comes up with a new theory: Melvin was taken!
See the connection? Clue [empty cage] leads to theory [hamster escaped] which leads to action [check cage for signs of how the hamster escaped] which leads to new clue [cage is secure] which leads to new theory [hamster was taken] which leads to new action and that will lead to another clue and another theory. This chain will keep your mystery moving and that’s important to keeping things interesting.
Not All Theories Are Equally Good
For example, Cal tells Dot, someone took Melvin. Who in this class would want Melvin as their own? Dot helpfully says, "Well, you like him more than anyone." Cal finds this unhelpful. Cal would certainly know if he'd taken the hamster. So though Dot has a theory, it doesn't lead the story to a clue because it isn't acted on. Clues appear as a result of action. But Cal comes up with someone else he's seen who seems to like the hamster almost as much: Benji! In fact, Benji is usually right there checking on Melvin in the morning along with Cal. So where is he? They look around and Benji is over at his desk, hunched over something. Maybe he already took the hamster.
See the clue snuck in there? Cal notes that Benji would normally be over at the cage with him, but he's not. So this leads Cal and Dot over to Benji's desk, where they find him hunched over a piece of paper where he’s working on a poem, the very poem they were supposed to write at home. Benji says he's been working on the poem all morning and all his efforts stink. Benji is delighted when Cal and Dot head to his desk as he wants them to read his poem effort. It's terrible and both Cal and Dot can't quite hide their reactions so Benji glumly crumples up the paper and says something about it being another one for the trash. He tosses it at the wastepaper basket, but misses.
Cal walks over, picks up the paper and tosses it into the wastepaper basket but it thonks in the bottom. Shouldn't the sound be different if Benji has been throwing them into the trash all morning? [A clue!] Cal checks. The paper he tossed in himself is the only one in there. A clue! So Cal comes up with a theory, Benji is fibbing because he hasn't been writing poetry, he's been swiping Melvin!
What Do You Think Happens Next?
So this goes on and on until one of these clue/theory combinations leads to the right theory (or one right adjacent) that sends Cal and Dot to the place where they will discover the hamster. For the story to be the most interesting, the ending should be surprising and probably funny. Sometimes I know the ending even as I’m just beginning to write. But sometimes I'm on the ride as much as the detective, and I also ask myself what I would do first. Which would lead me to checking the cage. So what would I do next? I'd think about who seems extra fond of the hamster. And on and on. In a chapter book mystery, this kind of trail of clues and the theories they produce will make the plotting almost write itself.
So, think about our story of The Mystery of the Missing Melvin. What should Cal do next now that he has the clue about the wastepaper basket? I would probably have him confront Benji again. And Benji would tell him that the basket was empty because Mr. Meyer emptied it a little while ago. In fact, he emptied it into a basket he was carrying, a bright blue plastic basket. And that might make Cal remember that Mr. Meyer also always cleans up the little wastepaper basket next to Melvin's cage, a bright blue plastic basket that their teacher bought so that hamster shavings can be cleaned into it. Cal also remembers that Mr. Meyer always talks to Melvin. Maybe Mr. Meyer is the one who took the hamster because he gets lonely working all day!
So the kids, with Benji coming along (because he really does love Melvin) go in search of Mr. Meyer. They find him out in the hall next to a whole cluster of wastepaper baskets. One of the baskets is bright blue! They rush over and demand Mr. Meyer hand over Melvin. But Mr. Meyer has no idea what they're talking about. He doesn't have Melvin. "Did you see Melvin this morning when you took his wastepaper basket?" Cal asks. Mr. Meyer says he didn't though he did notice that the little twist tie on the hamster's door was chewed through, so he put on a new one.
This new information shows Cal that his early clue was flawed. The hamster cage looked secure, which made him conclude that Calvin hadn't escaped. But that was a false clue because it led to a bad theory. So maybe Melvin is loose and could be anywhere.
The Solution––Does it Work?
Before the kids troop off, Mr. Meyer asks them to wait while he dumps the wastepaper basket from their room so they can carry it back for him. He picks up the basket and the kids all hear it rustle … a lot. Cal yelps and tells Mr. Meyer not to dump it in the big bin. They search the basket and find Melvin, blinking at them at the bottom of the basket. Then they can take their little furry friend home. [And if I really want to make all the bits of the story work well, this would also give Benji an idea for his poem.]
Now, I worked out this plot as I wrote this essay through the series of clue/theory/action steps. Notice also that the actions of the kids do matter to the ending of the story. I must always check that before accepting any ending I come up with. Without the kids to notice the scurrying in the basket, the poor hamster might have been dumped in the big bin and then taken to the dumpster and never seen again. Keep in mind how essential this one point is to every story you write: the ending must come as a result of the kids action.
So as you plot your own story, remember, the discovery of the mystery problem is the first clue. When you think of that as the first step, then you'll find it easier to follow the clue/theory/action steps throughout the mystery. Clues will no longer feel like artificial things you have to sprinkle, but very organic, sensible part of the journey through the plot.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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