Clues, red herrings and ‘reveals’

The current novel is my first attempt at crime fiction, after reading tons of it over the past decades. Reading other authors’ crime fiction is easy: you can be self-righteously critical of too much information, too little information, too many clues, none at all, plot twists you can see coming a mile off and others so arbitrary you feel cheated. Oh yes, I can take other people’s work to pieces, but writing your own is a different story, literally.

To some extent, crime fiction can feel a bit formulaic. You go on the course and buy the book – the Arvon book on crime writing, for example – and see what protocols characterise the genre. But a perverse refusal to obey rules that I have always struggled with is getting in my way. If someone says, you need a 3 act structure I say ‘Really? Why?’. I’m working hard to overcome this unhelpful trait. So for now, as an novice in the field, I am following the structural conventions, but am still struggling with whether and how to hide clues, and pop in just enough false leads and red herrings (where on earth did that phrase come from?) to keep the reader on her/his toes.

Only got the outline so far, although it’s pretty detailed in parts and up to 18,000 words. The clues etc are in the outline, but because they’re in this truncated form they’re obviously standing out more than they should and hopefully more than they will when the full ms in in place. Those trusted few who are reading and providing feedback on the outline are counselling a lighter touch, and they’re probably right. I’m pleased with one false trail that serves to undermine the protagonist’s self-confidence, which always adds to the tension.

The new book is set in the recent past, and so has necessitated some research about details of the period, but I think I may be learning how to handle it as the obsession for authenticity isn’t looming as large in my mind as it did previously. Some details are essential of course, but I’m also trying to detach the action a little from its setting to avoid local readers feeling that their home turf is being traduced by bad people doing bad things. No-one minds recognising the local setting when the characters and their actions are benign, but I don’t think that will hold true when some of the people are pretty nasty.

The overall problem is how to balance the inferences with the need for twists and a ‘reveal’ towards the end. Classic examples of the genre require the main characters to be summoned finally by the hero detective who then rehearses the clues etc before finally revealing the baddy. I definitely can’t be bothered with that, but some final shocks are necessary. Too many clues may herald and reduce the impact of the shock, but if there are none, is the writer cheating? Maybe I read too fast and without sufficient thought, but sometimes I’m not prepared for the final reveal at all and don’t like that. Thinking about it, what really matters, even in crime fiction, is that we have to care about the characters, even if we don’t like them. What happens to them should matter to us: it’s not just a plot device. And we’re back to character driving the story as much as plot.

What I seem to be doing as the outline expands slowly into a first draft is putting in clues etc and then paring them back to the merest sliver of a passing detail that could be missed or noticed and remembered, so that the assiduous reader feels rewarded later for their concentration. Will it work? Hard to tell. The acid test is giving it to someone to read who’s never read any previous version or had any conversation about the plot. They have to come to it raw, as it were, and then tell me how satisfied or otherwise they feel. It’s going to be a while before I get to that stage.

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