Monday, October 8, 2018

The Breadcrumb Trail

Once, a brother and sister got lost in the woods. In order to make sure they wouldn't get lost, walking in endless circles, they left a trail of breadcrumbs. Little did they know that as soon as they were out of sight, a murder of ravens followed behind them, snatching up the breadcrumbs and erasing the path the children had created.

Of course, we all know how that story ends. With the two children viciously murdering the old witch who kidnapped them, held them against their will, and threatened them with cannibalism.

Stephen King has nothing on the Brother's Grimm.

When crafting a good mystery, you must leave a breadcrumb trail for your hungry readers to devour as they follow the characters through the story. But, being the cunning creator that you are, you must also obscure the path at the same time. Make the crumbs too big, and the reader will fill up too quickly, get bored, and flit off to the suspenseful stylings of P.D. James. Make the crumbs too small, and the reader will feel tricked because there was no path to follow.

In this Mystery Monday post, we will be talking about crafting clues and planting them in plain sight. Whether through dialog, setting, description, or action, planting clues is a serious mind game designed to manipulate the reader and it needs to be done with purpose and planning.

When I was a child, my favorite riddle went a little something like this:

Sally came home to find Bonnie and Clyde lying dead in a puddle of water on the dining room floor. Broken glass was scattered around the bodies and a cat sat on the chair, flicking its tail. Sally screamed. 

How were Bonnie and Clyde murdered?

This simple riddle is a master class in providing all the clues you need to solve a mystery without providing the one piece of information that would make it obvious.

When my mama told me this riddle at the dinner table one night, she let me ask a series of yes or no questions:
  • Did Bonnie and Clyde drown? No.
  • Were they stab with the glass? No.
  • Were they poisoned? No.
What makes this riddle so devilishly clever is the way the murderer is described: as part of the scene. 

"A cat sat on a chair, flicking its tail."

Sounds more like an evocative description to make you imagine the room a little better, doesn't it?

Most people already know this riddle, and if you don't, I'm sorry to spoil it for you, but it's either a clever riddle or an amazing book, so I'm picking the lesser of two evils.

You see the question that I finally asked after a frustrating, teary-eyed eternity was this: 
  • Are Bonnie and Clyde human? No.

And just like that, I figured it out. Bonnie and Clyde are goldfish and the cat is the killer!!

On a larger scale, you want that light bulb moment to hit the reader as an audible gasp, at just the right moment and with a little bit or a lotta bit of tension crackling all around.

This riddle also demonstrates how burying clues about your killer as part of the backdrop of your story can be so effective. 

Say your victim was killed by a hit and run and the killer is the next door neighbor. Your investigator can meet this same neighbor while riding the bus and say something like, "I haven't seen you on this line before."

To which your killer says something like, "Yeah, I'm just sick of sitting in traffic, I see you hop on it every day, figured you must know something I don't. Besides, did you hear about what happened to [the victim], streets just aren't safe."

Now that nice juicy breadcrumb is just a piece of scenery. A way to breathe life into a description of a morning commute, or as a literary device to allow our MC investigator to do more than just "think" about the case.

And this is how all clues should be peppered through your story. Unless it's something you need to spoon feed to your reader (and you probably don't), hide it.

It's amazing how far you can push this technique. You just need to give your killer a function within the story. They can't be that creepy dude lurking in the corner. They have to be a minor character with a nice little side plot going on, something that makes your investigator/MC more human and the world you've created more real.

Because if they're serving an actual purpose in the story, your killer won't stand out. Let's go back to our riddle and I'm going to tell it to you another way.

Sally came home to find her cat sitting next to Bonnie and Clyde; both of whom were lying dead in a pool of water. "Bad, kitty!" Sally screamed.

A little more obvious this time, isn't it? Now, the cat isn't part of the backdrop; now, it's part of the foreground. You're focusing on it. It still might take you a minute to guess, but it's not going to stump you.

The important lesson here is that the richer and more real you make your world, the more hiding places there are for all kinds of delicious clues. Places for your killer to fade into the background noise. Places for your murderer to just sit and wait to be discovered.

This is also why I'm a fan of the ensemble cast. Clementine Toledano Mysteries have a lot of characters and side plots. The reason it's endearing to the reader and not annoying or confusing is that the side plots exist for a purpose. They're not just there for misdirection, they move the story forward in other ways. Same with the cast of characters. They all have a purpose and they all have a voice. Granted, usually one of them is a cold-blooded killer, but we all have our flaws, don't we?