The Writer’s Life from A to Z

There is an art to writing a great mystery or thriller. Certain elements must be in place with strategies to throw off even the smartest of readers. This would be basis of Jaden “Beth” Terrell’s latest installment on the foundations of writing a novel. If you’ve been working with Beth so far, the plot and characters are starting to take shape. Continue with us and by the end of the lessons, you’ll have a novel that no editor or agent can possibly resist.

Suspects, Secrets, and Sleight of Hand: The Art of Misdirection

By Jaden (Beth) Terrell

It would be a pretty dull crime novel—not to mention a short one—if all we had were a sleuth, a victim, and a villain. Without other suspects, there is no mystique. No misdirection. We read about red herrings and sleight of hand, but what exactly are they? Where do they come from, and how do we use them?

Red Herrings

In a mystery or thriller, a red herring is a clue used to misdirect the reader and divert his or her attention away from the real solution. The origin of the phrase is a source of some debate, but according to common lore, it came from the practice of dragging herrings, smoked for up to ten days until they turned reddish brown and acutely pungent, across the trail of a fox or hare to misdirect the hounds. Presumably, this was a test of or challenge to their ability to follow a scent.

Beginning writers often misuse red herrings, throwing in random clues or events that, while they may indeed obscure the killer, give their novels a disjointed feel. The most effective red herrings, though, aren’t random. Instead, they grow from characters and their motivations. Done well, the writer’s attempts at misdirection are invisible until the end.

But how do you pull this off?



When it comes to suspects, there are a few differences between mysteries and thrillers. In a thriller, it’s possible for the protagonist to know who the villain is and spend the whole book trying to catch him. Not so in a mystery. If your only suspect is the villain, there is no mystery. This means you need several people who could plausibly have committed the crime. I like to choose anywhere from three to six, including the villain. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume we’re writing a mystery.


All of the suspects should have a motive, even if it’s not immediately apparent. From their perspectives, the victim wronged or threatened them in some way. Let’s say our victim is a bulldog news reporter with a secret history of blackmailing the wealthier subjects of her investigations. Suspect 1 might have been ruined financially and personally by a story the reporter wrote. Suspect 2 has learned that her husband and the reporter are having an affair. Suspect 3 is being blackmailed. Suspect 4’s son committed suicide after the reporter exposed him as the perpetrator of a cyberprank. Suspect 5 stands to inherit a fortune if the reporter is out of the picture. All five suspects have a reason to hate the victim, but those motives may not be clear in the beginning.

Opportunity and Alibis

All, or almost all, of your suspects should have had the opportunity to commit the crime. One or two should have ironclad alibis that will ultimately unravel. One or two should have weak or no alibis. You might choose to have one character who couldn’t possibly have committed the crime but who can’t or won’t reveal her alibi. Maybe she’s trying to protect a loved one, or maybe her alibi is that she was committing a bank robbery on the other side of town. Two people, such as a married couple, might alibi each other, each thinking the other is guilty. The villain might have either a cast-iron alibi or should appear, for some reason, not to need one (e.g., she or he is someone so beyond suspicion that it never occurs to anyone to check for an alibi). Mix it up, making sure everything logically progresses from what’s come before.


Several of the innocent suspects should have their own secrets—reasons for not being completely forthcoming with the protagonist. Maybe one is hiding an affair, another is gay and not out of the closet, another grew up bouncing from foster care to juvenile detention facilities and has nothing but mistrust for anyone in authority. Another might be trying to protect either the real villain or someone she or he thinks might be. Another might feel like the crime was justified and that the person who committed it should be commended rather than punished. And so on.

These reasons should be as varied and plausible as possible, each suspect as developed as necessary. There are no throwaway characters. For each suspect, go back to the character questions we discussed in previous lessons and answer the ones that seem relevant—the ones that will define that person’s character and bring him or her to life for you and your reader.

Use the following chart to help you remember who your suspects are and what each one’s driving motivations are. For each character, fill in the following information:

Relationship to victim: Is this person a friend, relative, co-worker, spouse, family member, etc. of the victim?

Motive: Why might this character plausibly commit the crime?

Alibi or Opportunity: Could this character have committed the crime? Does she or he have an alibi, and if so, is it genuine or fabricated?

Secret: What reason might this character have to lie to, evade, or otherwise refuse to cooperate with the protagonist?

Connections: Does this character have connections to the villain, detective, or other suspects?

Defining Traits: What are this person’s defining characteristics? What would the detective notice first about him/her? What motivates him/her? What are his/her driving desires? In this box, you might also add any false clues that might lead the detective toward this person.



Download or Print a FREE Suspect Worksheet – Created by Jaden (Beth) Terrell

Sleight of Hand

Misdirection will often come from the deceptions, evasions, and machinations of the suspects. Keeping in mind that they’ll act in their own self-interest, think about how they might realistically make your protagonist’s life more difficult. Will they lie? Try to cast blame on another character (either maliciously or out of a sincere belief that this person is guilty)? Will they be overly helpful but clueless? Think about whether or not any of these people might have left physical clues that will mislead your main character, or whether they might have obscured genuine clues, either intentionally or by mistake.

There are other ways to use misdirection, but we’ll talk about those once we start writing scenes. For now, just have fun getting to know your suspects. Use the character development techniques we learned earlier. You may not need to go into as much depth as you did for the protagonist. Just do what you need to feel comfortable with these characters, trusting that more will emerge as you write.

Beth TerrellJaden Terrell (Beth Terrell) is a Shamus Award finalist, a contributor to “Now Write! Mysteries” (a collection of writing exercises by Tarcher/Penguin), and the author of the Jared McKean private detective novels Racing The Devil, A Cup Full of Midnight, and River of Glass. Terrell is the special programs coordinator for the Killer Nashville conference and the winner of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (SEMWA). A former special education teacher, Terrell is now a writing coach and developmental editor whose leisure activities include ballroom dancing and equine massage therapy.

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