What Makes a Good Clue in a Mystery? Here’s the Big Reveal.

Abi Wurdeman
November 28, 2023
What Makes a Good Clue in a Mystery? Here’s the Big Reveal.

Mystery writers really need to get a clue.

Make that several clues. Clues and red herrings… all woven together in a mind-bending puzzle of intrigue and misdirection. The answer can’t be obvious, but all the evidence has to be there, available to the reader all along.

And Holmes help you if you highlight a detail that is neither a true clue nor a red herring.

As a mystery author, you’ve got quite the puzzle on your hands. But much like your doggedly determined detective, you’re up for the adventure. Hopefully, this article will help. Keep reading to find out:

  • What makes a clue a good one
  • The different types of clues you can weave into your story
  • Clichés you should be aware of as you plant your evidence
  • How and when to use red herrings
  • How to pay off your clues with a satisfying ending  

Let’s start with the big picture.

The Anatomy of a Good Clue

A desk with a gun in an open drawer, a magnifying glass sitting on top of papers with code written on them, a full ashtray, and a typewriter.

Every clue should serve a purpose in your mystery story. It should either lead the detective (and reader) closer to the real perpetrator or send them down the wrong trail. Some of the most brilliant clues do both.

And your clues should all fall under one of these categories: 

True clue - This is evidence that actually helps your detective solve the mystery.

False clue - This sneaky little devil is planted by the perpetrator or anyone else who wants to throw your sleuth off the scent.

Red herring - This is a misleading detail that you, the writer, drop to distract both the detective and readers from true clues.

There are also a few qualities every clue must have in order to satisfy mystery readers.

They Can Be Experienced Through at Least One of the Five Senses

In order to call it a clue, your detective must be able to see, feel, hear, taste, or smell it. Your story can include hunches and assumptions, but those things aren’t clues.

They’re Relevant to the Mystery Plot

It’s totally fine to let your sleuth zero in on details that don’t lead to the killer. But if those clues aren’t going to solve the mystery, they should do something else for your story, like:

  • Lead to another clue
  • Highlight a theme
  • Build tension (more on this in a bit)
  • Enhance a subplot
  • Prompt the detective to look at the case from a different angle

They're Spotlighted

A light touch is sometimes best with your true clues. But key evidence shouldn’t be so buried that your reader thinks you’re just setting the scene

When Strung Together, True Clues are Unambiguous

Mysteries aren’t exactly known for clear-cut crimes. That’s why it takes Benoit Blanc (Knives Out) like ten minutes to explain how the victim was murdered even when the audience already knows half the story.

The complexity of the crime is all the more reason to make sure your clues point clearly to the killer and don’t just loosely support a wild theory.

Types of Clues You See in a Mystery Novel

Dark handprints on a blue brick wall.

When you first set out to write a murder mystery—or any kind of mystery, for that matter—your mind probably goes to crime scene clues first. But you can plan to drop clues for your reader all story long.

And the more you vary the types of clues in your book, the more engaging your mystery will be. So let’s explore your options.

Physical Clues

This includes concrete evidence like a murder weapon or financial document that might suggest a motive. That said, physical clues don’t have to be objects. Details like unusual smells or room temperature count, too. 

Biological Clues

This category encompasses evidence that can be definitively traced back to a specific character using biological science. You know, fingerprints and DNA stuff like hair and bodily fluids.

Verbal Clues

Maybe one of your suspects mentions that the victim had a falling out with their neighbor. Or a witness says they saw a blue car parked outside the abandoned warehouse at 1:34 a.m.

The beauty of verbal clues is that they’re not as reliable as physical evidence. A suspect could be trying to take the heat off themselves. A witness might have a foggy memory. 

Your detective has to consider these clues, but they can’t bank their entire case on them. 

Behavioral Clues

These clues focus on what your characters do. Perhaps the victim was packing a suitcase the night they were murdered. Or a witness is mysteriously tight-lipped. It’s up to your detective and readers to find out why. 

Clues of Omission

Sometimes it’s not about what’s there—it’s about what’s missing.

In A Murder at the End of the World, Bill is said to have accidentally died by his own hand. But when Darby inspects the instrument that caused his death, she finds no fingerprints. Why would he have worn gloves to operate it?

He probably didn’t. But someone else might have. 

Clichés to Be Aware Of as a Mystery Writer

A hand writes on a piece of paper on a wooden desk.

Two hours before I started writing this article, I was watching an old episode of Murder, She Wrote. My husband asked who got killed in this one.

“A guy at a costume party,” I told him.

“And the intended victim was someone else wearing the same costume?”

That was, in fact, exactly what happened. And while the obviousness of the twist didn’t ruin the episode for me, it did remind me why it’s important to be aware of clichés in mystery writing.

I’m a firm believer that you can always reimagine an overused clue with a surprising slant. So as I share the following list of evidence-related clichés, be aware that these aren’t things to avoid at all costs. But if you use them, find a way to add a creative twist.

The Teacup at the Crime Scene

Nothing says “poisoned” like a teacup in close proximity to the victim’s body. Other food and drinks certainly raise the possibility, but a teacup makes the cause of death feel almost certain.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this if you plan to be upfront about what killed the victim. But if you want poisoning to be a shocking twist, a teacup on the nightstand is not the way to go.

The Easy Confession

The confrontation is a key component of any mystery plot. The detective confronts the perp with their theory, laying out the story of the crime. In the end, the villain almost always admits they did it.

Written well, this moment is utterly delightful. The cliché to look out for is when the detective supports their suspicion with flimsy evidence and the perp responds with a comprehensive confession.

“Fine, I did it! I was sick of playing second fiddle to Thomas so I snuck into the church basement and stole the rat poison. I spent the next four months earning Thomas’s trust…”

For one thing, no one talks like this in any context, let alone when a life sentence is on the line. For another, this is stuff your sleuth should be revealing. This approach makes it look like their greatest strengths are just tossing out guesses and operating a hidden recording device.

Stereotyping the Source

Okay, this one actually is a cliché you should always avoid. Be aware of how unconscious bias might influence the way you write an unreliable or underhanded witness or suspect.

If you want the reader to question a character’s trustworthiness, write it into that character’s reputation or past actions. Don’t lean on stereotypes to do the job for you. 

Building Tension With Clues

One free hand and two handcuffed hands point to photographs spread out on an interrogation room table.

Clues aren’t just the engine keeping mysteries chugging toward the final scene. They’re also tools for building tension and suspense.

Here are some tips for using them to the most dramatic effect:

Plant Clues Strategically

Every new piece of evidence draws the reader deeper into the story. Add a promising clue just as your detective starts banging their head against the wall. Then add a hot tip that seems to completely contradict the previous lead.

Drop a Clue That Points at a Shocking Suspect

Unveil new evidence that seems to incriminate someone completely unexpected. Maybe it’s someone who’s already been ruled out thanks to an airtight alibi. Maybe it’s someone close to the sleuth. Maybe the detective suddenly has to plead their own innocence.

Let a Few Clues Linger

You have to do this anyway since you’ll be planting true clues and you can’t have the detective solve the crime until the end of the novel. Nevertheless, unresolved clues are great for building tension when you’re writing a mystery.

Every so often, remind your readers about the evidence that hasn’t been explained yet. Let your protagonist keep returning to that torn photograph or the piano with the missing key, especially as time starts running out.

Your sleuth knows the clue holds the answer. Your reader knows it, too. But if they don’t figure it out soon, the killer will get away.

Drop a Clue That Doubles as a Threat

Whether it’s a phone call with a disguised voice or a typed note taped to a door, nothing ups the ante like a “Stop the investigation or else” warning.

The fun thing is, this threat is another clue. Was it sent by the perpetrator? Or someone who has their own reasons for wanting your gumshoe to stay out of it?

Embrace Red Herrings

Red herrings are clues that lead the protagonist down the wrong path and they’re absolutely essential for building tension in mysteries.

Not only does this device raise hopes with a promising lead and dash them with a dead end, it also gets the reader to feel tension with the introduction of every clue. Should they analyze this new detail? Does it matter? Will it lead anywhere?

A red herring is a reminder that something can seem like evidence without actually being evidence. Both detective and reader must approach every tip with a sense of possibility and a healthy dose of skepticism.

In fact, red herrings are so important to a solid mystery story that they get their own section.

The Art of Red Herrings

A fork in a wooded trail.

We actually have an entire article on writing red herrings, so for now, I’ll stick to the basics.

The most important thing to understand about this mystery device is that it’s about misdirection, not deception. You’re not deliberately obscuring the facts. You’re simply presenting new information that distracts the reader from true clues.

This is a good thing. Most mystery readers love the genre because they either enjoy being tricked or like trying to outsmart the author. Or both. It’s usually both. 

Red herrings only become a problem when you create a string of dead ends that destroy the momentum of your story. Even as you tempt your detective and readers to follow the wrong trail, find ways to create the sense that they’re getting closer to the real answer.

A red herring might lead them to a true clue. It could reveal new information about one of the suspects. Or, simply by falling through, it might inspire the detective to re-examine old evidence.

Crafting a Memorable Ending for Your Mystery Plot

A person in a teal shirt making a surprised face.

Once you’ve planted all your clever clues, you’ll have to pay them off with a killer ending. So how do you write a conclusion that makes all this evidence-gathering worth it?

Show the Detective’s Moment of Realization

Most likely, one specific detail will spark a sudden realization for your sleuth. Let your readers see that detail, too, so they have a fighting chance of solving the crime themselves before your protagonist lays it all out.

Include the Clues

When your protagonist explains how they cracked the case, be sure to include the clues that led them to this conclusion. Show your readers that everything they needed to solve the crime was right there the whole time.

Tie up Any Hunches

As we discussed previously, hunches aren’t clues. But they’re clue-adjacent, and if you used your detective’s aversion to a specific character as a sort of red herring, you’ll have to justify that aversion. If that person wasn’t the perp, what was your sleuth’s gut really telling them?

A stunning and satisfying ending is your readers’ reward for riding out the twists and turns of your clues and red herrings. And it’s your reward for all the time you put into devising, strategizing, and planting evidence.

I’m hoping this article has given you some clarity on this particularly tricky aspect of mystery writing. And if you’ll allow me, I’d like to offer… 

Just One More Hot Tip

Write your mystery with Dabble.

Is it predictable that I’d say that? Sure. But hear me out.

Dabble’s Plot Grid makes it super easy to track clues, red herrings, twists, and more. 

A Dabble Plot Grid with columns for character whereabouts and Ribbons flagging twists and red herrings.

And that’s just one feature of this all-in-one novel writing tool. If you want to learn more about how Dabble can help you craft a spine-tingling whodunit, check out this guide and template.

Or you can get started today with a two-week free trial. Follow this link to get immediate access to all of Dabble’s features, no credit card required.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.