Monday, January 19, 2015

Analyzing Mysteries: Clues and Leads

Lately, clue pacing has been bugging me. If you are writing a mystery (like I am), how to you place clues? How do you decide when the detective finds the clues, and which clues she finds? How does this affect pacing?

I still haven't answered those questions, but as I was pondering this, I pulled out some outlines I'd made for two television show mysteries: an episode of Inspector Lewis ("Falling Darkness"--one of the most creepy and complicated episodes of Inspector Lewis ever) and an episode of Elementary ("The Leviathan"--not very creepy, but complicated). I compared them to see how the flow of clues/leads/suspects lead the detectives from the beginning to the end. And I made some interesting discoveries. In Inspector Lewis, there are several plot threads going at once. Lewis follows several leads at once, and the only connection the leads have is that they all involve the murdered woman. To contrast, in Elementary, only one lead is followed at a time, and one lead leads to the next.

I'll talk about Inspector Lewis first. First, I suggest you read this short synopsis (spoilers and all) of the episode (you'll have to scroll down to the bottom and push the "Read full synopsis" button). What I have to say will make more sense if you can compare it to the synopsis.

In this episode, the first half or more of the story is spent following several different leads--all of which are mostly wrong or red herrings. But the way in which the clues are found and leads are followed is a little bit scattered, as multiple leads are being followed at once. Here's a timeline of the leads (note: I made this out of the detailed outline I made for this episode, so it covers more clues than the synopsis. Don't worry if you don't know what clues it refers to, the point of this is to see the "pattern" in which the clues were followed and the fact that they investigate more than one lead until Mary Gwilliam's body is found.)

Laura’s friend, Ligeia, is murdered on Halloween night.
Vampire leads (garlic in the mouth and stake through the heart of body—dead ends, never brought up again.)
Stem cells.
Fridge letters.
Stem cells.
Ligeia’s ex and daughter (also dead end that never goes anywhere).
Ligeia’s boyfriend (he proposed, she ended the relationship=motive for him.)
More fridge letters (including "find Mary Gwilliam") and new murder.
Backstory connection to Laura, Ligeia, and house where second murder happened.
Charlotte gets questioned because she lives nearby.
Laura’s past.
Learn more about students at second murder house.
Consider Laura as a suspect.
Students’ suspicions and alibies (or lack thereof.)  
Boyfriend and stem cells--> reveal Ligeia’s boss’s motive (never brought up again.).
Gwilliam’s body found (tie in with fridge letters.)
Gwilliam backstory and clues.
More about students (two of them used to date each other—dead end).
Gwilliam connection to Laura.
Laura’s past.
Gwilliam and hospital.
Gwilliam’s past.
Laura’s past.
Gwilliam's past.
Connection: Laura’s past to hospital where Gwillam worked.
Laura’s past.
Laura’s past.
Charlotte identifies one of the students as the guy who got home late the night of Ligeia’s murder.
Connection: the psychic was having an affair with said student, which is why he got home late (dead end).
Connect Laura to hospital-->learn about twins.
Figure out who twins are.
Twins are mentally ill-->tie in to their father.
Lewis gives explanation and conclusion. 

In this episode, anything that isn't Laura's past or related to Mary Gwilliam is a red herring. The stem cell research, the break up with the boyfriend, the psychic, etc. are all red herrings. Until Mary Gwilliam's body is found, Lewis follows several leads that are mostly red herrings. After her body is found, things start to come together.

In Elementary, only one lead is followed at a time. Sherlock finds one lead, asks questions about it, which leads him to the next lead, which leads him to the next lead, and so on. It's far more linear than Inspector Lewis. I'm going to do another timeline like I did for Inspector Lewis, so here's the synopsis for "The Leviathan". (Here's a more in-depth one, but that website has incredibly inappropriate links and pictures in the side bar.) A timeline of leads looks like this:

Crime is committed.
We get backstory on the previous robbery. 
Meet Mr. Green Stick
Sherlock examines crime scene and suggests it wasn't an inside job
Sherlock wants to find who did it in order to find out how they did it.
Sherlock visits old thief in prison-->thief says a dead thief sold info to a master thief.
Sherlock researches master thief, figures out who it is.
Sherlock goes to visit the master thief and spots a clue that proves they have the right guy, but said thief had a stroke two years ago and can’t walk, so it can’t be him.
Back to the original thieves-->only one thief went to trial, the rest took plea bargains.
Sherlock realizes that four jurors from the original robbery had the same skills as the thieves, and one is related to Mr. Green Stick
Theory: jurors copied original thieves.
One juror is murdered-->the stolen diamonds were at his house-->Sherlock's theory was right.
Theory: one of the other jurors killed him for the diamonds but couldn’t find them.
Another juror dies.
Collect DNA evidence on all previous jurors.
DNA doesn’t match jurors, but matches someone else-->she donated bone marrow to one of the jurors, so the DNA sample the cops used (saliva rather than blood) wouldn’t match (this is a factor of bone marrow transplants, don't try to figure it out, it's irrelevant to this exercise).
The jurors did it, crime solved. 

See how this was far more linear than Lewis? Sherlock started out with only one lead: the original robbery gang. From there, one clue lead to the next and there weren't very many red herrings (there were also a lot fewer plot threads). However, like in Lewis, they didn't start to really nail down who it could have been until about half way through the episode.

Some other differences between Inspector Lewis and Elementary:
  • Lewis is a bit more omniscient than Elementary. We see things going on with the suspects that Lewis doesn't see. In Elementary, we only see what Sherlock or Watson sees. 
  • Lewis puts more effort into developing the suspects and their secrets than Elementary does. This is the reason why there are more leads and plot threads. We get a much closer look at the suspects' lives in Lewis than in Elementary. 
  • While this particular Inspector Lewis did involve a recurring character's past, it didn't have much to do with her overarching character arc. In Elementary, there is a side plot involving Watson's mother, which does add to the overarching relationship between Watson and Sherlock. 
So, what's the takeaway of this post? There are multiple ways to structure and balance clues and subplots and leads. How do you figure out how you should structure your mystery's clues? I haven't figured that out yet. What I did learn from this, however, was that I have the pacing of the mystery in my WIP wrong. At the beginning, when my detective finds out the suspect she was investigating didn't do it, it bumps her back to square one. This happens multiple times. I don't like that. It slows things down, and means that she rarely gets to deal with new information. In both Elementary and Inspector Lewis, when a clue leads to a dead end, there are other leads for the detectives to follow that are built on investigation they've done already. I need to figure out how to do that.  I plan on outlining some more mysteries (episodes of Poirot, Castle, and Psych, and the book I'm reading right now--The Season by Sarah MacLean), so hopefully I'll learn more.

What do you, fair reader, think of this? Have anything to add?


  1. Love these outlines. It's a great way to back up from a story far enough to see the story arcs and dead ends.

  2. I replied from my iPod when I first saw this post, but I guess it didn't go through. Captcha problems or login or something like that. I'll do my best to reiterate.

    You might be interested in my latest YAvengers post about mysteries. It's a summation of a lot of the things I've already said on my blog, but a few new things showed up, particularly in translating common mystery terms. I thought it was fun.

    I remember seeing Leviathan when it first aired about a year ago. Because of TV attention spans and the structure of a one-hour show, the person who did it is usually introduced within the first fifteen minutes (often before the first commercial break). The final clue to close the case is always the last thing before the final commercial break. Those two things are pretty much constant no matter what mystery show you watch, but because of Elementary's linear storytelling, you can guess almost immediately who it's going to be. In Castle, on the other hand (which I adore by now, for this reason), they still introduce the villain early, and most of the time the final clue is found just before the last commercial break, but because of all the red herrings, twists, and theories that everyone comes up with, you can't know for sure. For instance, in the most recent episode of Castle, I predicted the villain, but I didn't know their motives, didn't know how they did it, and didn't know what bearing the rest of the story had on that mystery. So, considering the two examples you've got, I'd say Inspector Lewis is the better-written episode (despite not having seen it), just for lack of linear storytelling.

    It's always a fine line to walk between being mysterious and being confusing— but it's also a fine line between being clear and being obvious. It's always wonderful when it's done well.

    1. I read that YAvengers post when it posted and I did enjoy it. You mentioned some very interesting things. I need to reread that post because of course now I don't remember what they were.

      That's interesting about the commercial breaks. Because I watch all my TV shows on DVDs from the library, I don't see the commercials.

      Castle is one of the shows I want to analyze some more. There's a specific episode, "3XK", that had an interesting plot structure. Castle and Beckett spend the majority of the episode trying to prove that the killer is this one suspect, and once they do they realize they were wrong. I'd like to see how the clues line up in that.

      Just out of curiosity, what did you think of the Irene Adler/Moriarty reveal at the end of Elementary? Did you see that coming?

  3. This was a cool post. I'm afraid I have nothing to add to your deductions. :)


  4. This is interesting. :) I always thought that if I ever decided to write a mystery novel, I would start backwards as in I would get into my head how the whole murder happened then I would backtrack and lay out all the clues leading up to it. I'd imagine mysteries would involve a lot of plotting.

    Stori Tori's Blog

  5. Wow, this is a pretty impressive set of case studies! The notes are quite lengthy, and I think you brought up a valid point we don't always understand. Hopefully, though, as we keep learning we'll be able to learn to pace those clues as well. :)

  6. What a very interesting post! You are a very talented writer and a deep thinker. Looking forward to more.