Mystery: Classifying Clues

Mystery Month continues with the complicated part: setting out the clues. After all, one of the object of mystery-writing is to make people think. But in itself, that’s one of the trickiest parts, as you need to make sure that any given set of clues will eventually get your players to where they need to be.

So first, let’s think about clues. “Clue” is quite possibly the most commonly thrown around word in a mystery, but one of the least defined. What it usually comes out to is shorthand for “Something, usually a fact or material piece of evidence, that points the people solving the mystery in the direction of a, if not the, solution.” But for something as heavy-meta as a mystery, it’s a good idea to dig a little deeper: basically, taking a look at the forms and results of the possible clues.

The first feature of a clue is its form. Most of us, when we think of clues, think of those little physical things left behind by the culprit that can be sketched, shoved into a plastic baggie, or otherwise taken with in some form for further contemplation. And yes, these are clues; they’re physical clues, and they’re the most common type, but they aren’t the only type. Some clues are verbal, picked up in conversation. This is where we get the coincidental overhearing of important information, the convenient slip of the tongue on the part of a suspect, the expert’s analysis, witness’s exposition and suspect’s alibi. They’re important, but easy to lose; if they aren’t written down, who knows how they might be misremembered or forgotten? And some clues are contextual: on their own, they wouldn’t mean much if anything, but when taken in context with their surroundings or the preexisting circumstances/information, they mean a lot more. For instance, a person buying coffee and chatting with the waitress may not seem like much, but if you know there was a theft at the coffee shop last week and evidence points to the possibility of an inside job, it takes on a lot more meaning. Contextual clues are the likeliest to be dropped by accident, as someone remembers a detail from an earlier plot arc that they find relevant and you either didn’t think would come in or forgot entirely.

The second feature of a clue is its result. While all clues bring their finders closer to a conclusion, they don’t all do so in the same way. Some clues broaden the scope of an investigation, introducing a new line of questioning or extending the list of possible suspects by a few more people. Others narrow the investigation, eliminating one or more people from plausible suspicion. Still others are bridge clues; while these don’t actually get their investigators closer to an answer, they do give them some idea where they might need to go next. A good mystery will have a decent smattering of all types.

The third is accessibility: how hard is this clue to find? Most important clues should have high accessibility; they may not be easy to find, but they’re not hard to miss, either, particularly if they’re being actively sought out. On the other hand, every now and then you might want a low-accessibility clue—one the finding of which on its own is something to be proud of. The main use of this is to make sure the important clues are found; if you have a clue without which the investigation can’t be solved, try not to make it low-accessibility. Accessibility can be changed by several factors: the difficulty of finding the clue where it’s supposed to be found, the number of places or ways in which the clue could be found, and how obvious it is made that the clue exists.

The last feature of a clue is its comprehensibility. For some clues, the logical answer is obvious; if there’s only one or two redheads in the suspect list and you find strands of red hair at the scene of the crime, it’s pretty clear what that means. On the other hand, when there’s next to no context or marks or much of anything, discovering that somebody’s slipped a signet ring into a PC’s pocket is just as likely to be met with “???” or a completely off-base conclusion (or with someone abusing the magic system again to try to make it make sense) as with “OH!”

Once you know how to categorize clues, it’s easier to figure out how to seed them for maximum effect and minimize the impact of the Player Obliviousness Factor.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Mystery: How to Scatter Clues | Exchange of Realities
  2. Feeding People Conclusions | Exchange of Realities
  3. Mystery: Red Herrings | Exchange of Realities
  4. No Crime Is Too Perfect | Exchange of Realities
  5. Finding Their Own Clues | Exchange of Realities
  6. Motives Operandi | Exchange of Realities

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