Dialogue is important in virtually every story you’ll ever write, but in mysteries that importance (and difficulty) is compounded by the use of dialogue in relation to clues. Keep in mind that one of the most important things in mystery writing is fair play, where you offer the reader enough clues to come to the same conclusion as the sleuth by the end. But you don’t want the reader to sort out the clues until the end. Ultimately, you want an “of course” ending, where the reader hadn’t quite worked it out, but when the end is revealed, it is completely satisfying because it makes sense with the available clues. To do that, you need to reveal clues and hide them at the same time, and dialogue can be vital to that.
One way to help use dialogue to hide clues is to make the dialogue witty or funny or eccentric. In other words, let the other aspects of the dialogue distract a little from the content. This is just about the only time when style over substance will be beneficial. Normally, you want your content to shine above your style so that readers aren’t distracted from the story. But mystery writing is all about distraction. So you’ll use elements of dialogue and characterization to divert attention.
Let’s consider an example. Suppose this bit of dialogue is meant to reveal that the culprit (a bagpipe playing “ghost”) was wearing a kilt dipped in something to make it glow in the dark, but we want the reader not to pay too much attention to this fact. To do that, we’ll let our eccentric sleuth distract the reader with his love of making up tongue twisters.
Joel spotted something caught in the splintery wood of the old fence. He teased out a wad of stiff, dirty wool. “Ah, our piper pranced playfully past this post.”
Slyvie glared at him. “Stop with the alliteration.”
“Consonance,” he said.
“Consonance is when a passage repeats consonant sounds, as mine did. Consonance is valuable in tongue twisters.”
She rolled her eyes and pointed. “Look how grubby that is. It was probably in the fence forever.”
“Could have been,” he said agreeably. “Wasn’t.”
A love of making up tongue twisters would be distracting, so would a passion of coming up with knock-knock jokes or a habit of picking up every stray bit. A character who picks up everything could grab up a vital clue in the mix without the reader giving it too much notice. So a sleuth might stop and collect a piece of gravel from the path that lead up to an old fence, a wilted leaf on the ivy growing on the fence, and a wad of dirty wool caught in a splintery fence post. His companion might demand to know why he picks up everything, thus focusing attention on the action/habit and making us overlook the threads.
Joel stopped sharply at the end of the gravel path. They were facing an old fence gate, its posts covered with ivy. Sylvie reached for the gate.
“Hold on!” Joel stepped around her and carefully plucked a single wilted leaf from the ivy. Then he leaned even closer to the post and picked a strand of dirty yarn. Finally he knelt, pulling out his tweezers and plucked up a single small piece of gravel.
“Honestly?” Sylvie snapped. “You are picking up random stuff now. You cannot possibly think there is something special from a piece of string, a wilted leaf, and a stupid pebble.”
Still kneeling, he looked up at her. “You can learn a great deal from fragments of gravel. This piece could be stained with blood, for instance.”
Sylvia raised her eyebrows, sinking into her own crouch to see more closely. “Is it?”
Joel popped up. “No, but think what we would have learned if it had been.”
In this exchange, the yarn is going to be a key clue, but we’re pulling the reader’s attention hard to the gravel through the dialogue. We’re giving the reader the important clue, but we’re immediately throwing in a distraction. This only works if the dialogue is snappy and (whenever possible) has a bit of conflict. Conflict is very attention getting, so throwing some conflict into the mix will grab attention.
It is the nature of mystery writing to try to send the reader off on rabbit trails of theory, where the reader believes one possible solution to the mystery while another is quietly unfolding when you’re not looking. In order to do this, the writer needs to give the reader rabbit trails to follow and dialogue works great for that. Dialogue can present us with all kinds of theories, some true, some not. So for our duo of Sylvie and Joel, we might have Sylvie believe in one possible answer to the mystery and constantly draw strong attention to clues that support what she believes to be true. This pulls the reader (at least partially) along with her. Any mystery-loving reader will know Sylvie’s theory is probably not the right one, but that won’t protect the reader from being pulled off track. Dialogue is compelling so whether you believe the theory or not, you’ll consider it while reading.
Other false trail theories can come from suspects or from authority figures (in adult mysteries, this usually means the police, who never beat the sleuth to the solution). Dialogue about these theories will mix false clues with real clues and present a possible solution that seems to make the clues work. Let’s think about our Joel and Sylvie story where they are investigating a bagpipe playing ghost. Maybe after the discussion of the gravel, Sylvie latches onto the false clue about the wilted leaf. In fact, she realizes there are a lot of wilted leaves on the fence post. The ivy growing there is dying. So Sylvie posits that the ghost is giving off some kind of sick miasma that killed the plant when it passed through the fence gate. And she ties that into a previous clue about the animals in a barn at the farm getting really sick. It’s the ghost, sucking out their life force. Now, ultimately we will learn the real reason for the animals being sick (someone is feeding them something to make them sick with the goal of getting the farmer to sell his land) but the ivy won’t be a real clue. We’ll find out that actually the farmer hacked the ivy off close to the ground because it was basically pulling the fence apart (and in fact, created the splinter that caught the real clue: the yarn from the “ghost’s” kilt that had been dipped in something to make it glow in the dark).
The value of double-duty dialogue can reach beyond mystery writing. Many stories benefit from distraction and misdirection to make the plot move in interesting ways. It can help a writer keep the main character from their goal for a bit longer, thus building tension. Whenever a main character reaches their goal too easily or too directly, a story will feel flat. Dialogue used cleverly to distract or misdirect will help us believe the main character really couldn’t have taken the short, easy road. Too many times a story plot flags because characters don’t tell one another important things without a good reason for withholding the information. But what if you make the story complicated by making characters tell too much, so much that everything becomes confusing? That can make things interesting. So when you write your dialogue, whether for mysteries or for other genre, don’t overlook the value of good dial to nudge the reader in directions you desire, even if they’re false trails. A little mischief in the dialogue adds spice and interest to the plot, and that’s always a good thing.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.