Most of us have probably read enough books and watched enough movies to spot the potential culprits when unraveling a mystery (even in romance stories). Excellent writers put in the perfect mix of clues and possible suspects to keep us guessing … as well as to surprise us with a twist at the end.
Here’s a subtle, sneaky trick you can use to take suspense to the next level.
I recently read Susan Sleeman’s book Silent Sabotage and was pulled into a sticky web of mysterious suspects who could be responsible for attacking the main character. However, I was stumped as to who it could be—vacillating between several people as new incidents occurred. When Susan finally revealed the villain at the end, it was a main character … one right under my nose who I easily dismissed.
Susan did something savvy that made solving the mystery a challenge. (This will not be a spoiler.) She had alarming things happen to the main character that appeared to be clues pointing to the culprit, except—they weren’t. The main characters (and I) thought every negative event was a major clue, when some were actually not related to the criminal.
It takes extreme skill to blend these sneaky suspicions in. Here are a couple of ways to do it:
Add a situation that is just “life.” A flat tire can happen to anyone anywhere. Sometimes fires break out in a house or office from old wiring or gas leaks. Car accidents happen constantly because a driver isn’t paying attention. Insert one of these in the midst of a story, and readers (as well as the characters) will eagerly add it to the list of clues/suspects. But, it’s not connected. It only happened because these things are part of life.
Or, have someone intentionally try to sabotage the main character for personal reasons. A jealous coworker or former boyfriend/girlfriend might do something to the main character to hurt them. That’s all it is—it doesn’t relate to the actual crime and is not done by the actual criminal. However, in the middle of everything else going on, it seems like another major clue or possible suspect.
Note: use this method sparingly. If you throw in too many random incidents, your readers won’t appreciate going down pointless rabbit trails. Be careful to make the situation blend seamlessly with the character’s life. When it’s done smoothly, like in Silent Sabotage, readers will be truly surprised and satisfied with the ending.
The opposite use of this technique can work wonderfully, too. In the delightful romance book The Other You by Marion Ueckermann, there is a mystery that the heroine desperately wants to resolve. It’s not the main plot, but we hope she figures it out. Marion uses the “coincidence” element throughout the story so subtly that I kept wondering, “Is that really a coincidence or not?” It had to be, since there was no rational reason to attribute it to … but little nagging doubts would pop up. At the end when Marion finally reveals all of the secrets surrounding the mystery, everything in the story—including the coincidences—fit together perfectly and the ending was very gratifying.
Savvy Writer Tip:
Every once in a while, insert an unexpected event or coincidence into your story. Make sure it blends seamlessly and believably with all the other things in the main character’s life. Use “coincidences” in a way that could be perceived as significant but are eventually revealed as just “real-life” occurrences. Or make them seem completely unrelated to the mystery, then disclose in the end that they were meaningful. But be subtle, so that when everything falls into place, readers will be pleased with the outcome—as well as impressed with your skillful writing. 🙂