How Do I Know Where to Put Clues?

Welcome back to the fourth and final lesson in our series on writing a good mystery novel.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the series, this is a very basic discussion of the mechanics of the successful mystery. If you’re interested in a more in depth look at mystery writing, leave a comment in the comment box below. If you have questions, leave them in the comment box, as well. As with all of our clinics, this class is open indefinitely and your questions will be answered.

If you missed the previous posts or would like to review them, here are the links.

Now for this week’s lesson.

What’s Going On Behind the Scenes?

Some time ago, a friend and I pondered the difficulties of tying off loose ends in a mystery. She had questions about the ending for her mystery-in-progress, so she bounced her questions off me. Her dilemma was this.

How do I know how much my detective needs to find out to solve the mystery?

A good question!

Following are three things I’ve found to be extremely helpful in figuring out just what my hero needs to know and how to place clues.

Just What is the Bad Guy Doing?
I often write what I refer to as clarification scenes. For example, in one manuscript, the crime was consumer fraud that took months to unfold. Timing was crucial, so I wrote a time line detailing how and when the criminal met his victim, how he ingratiated himself with her, and how he carried out his crimes.

While writing the story (which was told in first person), I inserted these clarification scenes in the appropriate places in the story so I knew what the bad guy and other players were doing while the lead was telling her story.

Clarification scenes spotlighted the villain, the lead male, the interactions between those two, and other characters as necessary. They were removed from the final draft, but only after every loose end in the story was tied together in a tidy package.

The clarification scenes showed me the activities I needed to know about in order to successfully wrap up the mystery.

The Big Reveal
Tie the loose ends up first. Write the scene in which your detective explains everything. You may have to wait until you know for sure who the villain is, but once you do, have your hero tell you how he or she came to the truth.

What were the clues?

Where were they found?

What seemingly inconsequential detail was the keystone that caused everything else to make sense?

Once you have an understanding of what your character needs to know to put the pieces together, you can plant the necessary clues in the right places.

The Scene of the Crime
Write the crime as it happens. Third person works best for this because the purpose is to set the stage for the hero. To do that, you need to be able to see everything about the scene, the action, and the aftermath.

Questions to ask include:

How was the crime committed?

What clues were left behind at the scene?

What else happened that points to the villain?

It’s helpful to write the Big Reveal and the Crime Scene together. Let them play off each other, inform each other, and develop together.


There are many other ways to figure out when, where, and how to place clues, set up the scene of the crime, and write the big reveal so all the loose ends–large and small–are tied up in a satisfactory manner.

If these three don’t work for you, adapt them to your style of writing. Combine them. Split them apart. Come up with totally new ideas!

This concludes our series on the basics of writing a mystery novel. If you have a question that wasn’t addressed in one of these four posts or if you need clarification on one of them, leave a comment below.

And if you have a technique that helps you, I encourage you to join the discussion.

In the meantime, keep writing and have fun!

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