I'm moderating a panel at Sleuthfest entitled "The Mystery in Mysteries: Clues, Misdirection and Satisfying Endings." I'll be sharing the dais with Twist Phelan, Kate White and Glynn Marsh Alam, and I'm looking for interesting questions to ask them.

To me, the placement of clues is tied up with plotting, and I'll be asking whether they plot their books out in advance or write by the seat of their capris. I'm thinking of asking whether they think up their clues in advance or allow them to arise from the writing. And I was going to ask about the use of red herrings.

I suppose I should also ask what makes a "satisfying ending" to each of them. Any other ideas?

Neil Plakcy

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You could bring up a discussion of MacGuffins... in the context of misdirection...
Interesting, Libby. I found this definition of a MacGuffin: "A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is a plot device that motivates the characters and advance the story, particularly one whose importance is accepted completely by the story's characters, yet from the audience's perspective it might be minimally explained or may test their suspension of disbelief if it is scrutinized. The device, usually an object, is common in films, especially thrillers."
What a great question! Thanks.
My favorite type of clue is one that becomes important in retrospect. This is a clue that helps the sleuth connect the dots. You can weave in the clue subtly, but you have to draw enough attention to it so that the reader hasn't forgotten the clue when it gets recognized as important. However, I think careful
readers can usually spot clues as they come along, even when they're written in subtly. That sounds like a really interesting panel, by the way, Neil!
Here's another thought. How do you convey the protagonist's intuition convincingly, and is it a cheat if their instincts are what steer them in the wrong direction? IE, male protagonist meets someone connected to the crime, who just pushes all his buttons, and there are hints that support his gut instinct the guy is guilty as sin... If the guy isn't guilty how do you play fair with your reader?
Great question, Sandra. The opposite is true as well-- what if your protagonist likes someone a lot and doesn't want to believe he/she is guilty-- how far do you go in misleading the reader with what a bad person the false suspect is?
Yes, that would be good, too. Interesting to think about.
Hey, Neil, I'm attending Sleuthfest -- and hope to make your panel! If so, I'll say hi.

One thing that I like is a mystery that lays a tidbit up front-- something seemingly insigficant-- and then the story takes a whole new turn in such a way that the reader forgets that clue, until the end, when the author ties it back into the bigger plot. Something very satisfying about that to me.

That might be a point of discussion. Again, it has to do with how one plots, in advance or by the seat of her "capris." (Loved that!) Is it easier to interject that type of a clue? Is it best done at the beginning, knowing where your headed, or is it done later, after the story has led the writer where it will? And how in the world do writers come up with these little tidbits that grows into its own?
Neil, how long is your panel? Your first three basic questions were good, and the comments already posted show how much more could develop. I'm moderating my very first panel at Malice in May, and the sessions are only 50 minutes. I figure that's just about time to introduce the panelist, ask three thought-provoking questions, and take some questions for the panel from the audience. So instead of suggesting even more on clues, here's more on McGuffins. I think of the Maltese Falcon--The Bird--as the quintessential McGuffin. Any "24" fans around? Because the plot arc of each season is 24 hours in realtime and 24 episodes on TV--a lot!--the McGuffin changes once and sometimes twice in the course of a season. That breaks the rules. Does it heighten suspense? Is it harder to do? Do y'all like it?
Having moderated, you want more questions on hand than you'll need, just in case. Go light on the intros and get to the meat of the topic. The more interactive the better.

I'm moderating again in June at Murder in the Grove and will be doing a game show intro to the topic. I'm looking forward to it. Any of my panelists who've seen me in action probably aren't, poor things.
Just as Sandra suggests, I want to have a bunch of questions prepared in advance-- you never know when what seems like a great question will fall flat, and you want to make sure to cover the dead time if no one in the audience actually has any questions. But you're right, our panel will only be 50 minutes long, and I don't want to have so much to cover that we don't really get deeply into anything at all.
I'll be attending Sleuthfest, so I will copy Sylvia and add my howdy.

I do like to have an ending that answers the nagging stuff, but it seems like the murderers in many of the books talk way too much, especially when the only evidence against them is circumstantial or they have the hero tied up and are going to kill him (her) anyway.


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