July 30 – August 5: “What is the best clue you have inserted into a novel as a writer?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Clues foreshadow how plots unfold and characters react. This week we’re joined by ITW Members Alan Jacobson, Jay Brandon, Robert J. Stava, Sarah Simpson and David Orange as they answer the question: What is the best clue you have inserted into a novel as a writer? Scroll down to the “comments” section to see how this unfolds!


Always a deep thinking child, Sarah Simpson supposed that one day – she’d become a writer. So many hours consumed by reading, lost in the fantasy worlds of Enid Blyton. Always a people watcher, wondering what is ensuing behind the eyes. But as is often the case, life gripped her hand, and led her along a different path. She graduated first with a business degree and then with a psychology degree. After completing post-graduate studies, Sarah worked as a therapist within the varied field of mental health. This path has gifted her an invaluable understanding of life and of people. Now a writer; she could never have been without these experiences. She wanted to write about life and as with her debut novel, HER GREATEST MISTAKE – perhaps travel the darker aspects of life and relationships.


Alan Jacobson is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of a dozen books featuring FBI profiler Karen Vail and the OPSIG Team Black covert ops group. His 20+ years of research and training with the FBI, DEA, ATF, SWAT, Scotland Yard, and the US military infuse his books with verisimilitude. His novels have been optioned by Hollywood and both series have been raved about by federal agents, police captains, FBI profilers, and Navy SEALs.


A veteran of the NYC advertising business, Robert J. Stava is a horror & science fiction writer living in the Hudson Valley, apparently not far from the village where many of his stories are set: Wyvern Falls. His last novel, Nightmare From World’s End, was published by Severed Press in 2016 and his next science fiction-horror novel, Neptune’s Reckoning, set in Montauk, is due out the end of 2018. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies over the last several years and he has also authored one YA novella, The Devil’s Engine, published by Muzzleland Press. He’s also a musician, artist and historian. His non-fiction book Combat Recon was published in hardcover by Schiffer Publishing in 2008, encompassing the history and photography of his great uncle John Stava, a combat photographer with the 5th Air Force in the SW Pacific during WWII.


Jay Brandon is the author of 18 novels. His previous novel, Shadow Knight’s Mate, has been called “an absorbing, exciting, and absolutely entertaining novel.” His earlier novels include Fade the Heat, which was an Edgar finalist and published by more than a dozen foreign publishers. He has a master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University.


David Orange, veteran actor, has co-starred twice on Broadway and has had several memorable film roles including the “Sleepy Klingon” in the hit film Star Trek VI in addition to performing in 300 television commercials and guest roles on TV shows. He also has had 25 articles published in wine and entertainment magazines and two novellas published by small presses.


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  1. That’s a toughie. I mentioned in a previous round table discussion about throwing up a whopper of a clue at the beginning of “At Van Eyckmann’s Request” – literally in plain sight. But one of my better one’s I like to think – though it may be more of a metaphor for the entire novel – is the desiccated human skeleton the kids find at the beginning of “By Summer’s Last Twilight”. It’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the story that’s about to unfold, starting with the mystery of: how the hell did this rotting old thing get here? How is this even possible? It’s impaled on a log in the shadow of a bridge the day after a hurricane has swept through the Hudson Valley. For the one of the main characters, a Portuguese teenager named Luis Dimas, it represents not only the focal point for realizing the loss of his childhood as he’s on the cusp of becoming an adult (hence the title & theme of the novel), but also in its state as he and his friends discover it – a relic from a mysterious past with one bony finger pointing to the river beyond, to the greater mystery and horrors that lie ahead. So, it’s a clue that works on a variety of levels. I hope.

    That same “Hurricane disgorges a clue from the depths” theme kicks off another clue in the beginning of the sequel novel, “Nightmare from World’s End”, though this one was inspired by a very real one I discovered washed up along the shore of the Hudson after a hurricane swept through the area; a seaweed and barnacle encrusted old crate built of massive timbers. That immediately got my wheels turning. What the hell is thing? Why does it look like it was built as a giant cage? What could it possibly contain? In the story version, the faded letters stenciled on it leads us to the rather unpleasant answer.

    I’ll never be an Agatha Christie when it comes to serving up clever clues, so I just try and have a little fun with them instead.

  2. I think the best clues are those that provide the reader with significant information without her realizing you’ve just given her key information that could be part of a vital reveal.

    I was shocked to hear that some of my readers revisit my novels three or more times. To me, that means that I achieved my goal of being fair in terms of what I revealed, and when, because the second time through she knows where the story is going. If I had pulled the ending out of thin air without it being plausible based on what came before it—including the clues—the novel would not stand up to a second, third, or fourth read.

    Of course, sometimes there are those clues you want the reader to find but which don’t lead anywhere—or lead somewhere that takes her down the “wrong” path—i.e., a red herring. These are part of the enjoyment of a mystery/suspense novel. Done well, you play fair with the reader while giving her an enjoyable, twisting, suspense-filled journey.

    That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to have a story turn on a dime using a twist that seemingly came out of left field. You can do this, if it’s not bizarre, outlandish, or purposely hidden from the reader. On a second read, however, it has to be something that was there but not overtly obvious. Also, you could be writing a crime novel and your protagonist detective discovers something at the same time the reader does, based on new information that becomes available or a new character who enters a scene. This happens all the time. That’s the purpose of an investigation in a procedural. Bottom line, it’s all in the execution, how you treat the reveal and how you’ve treated the reader (with respect!).

    In DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, there are a number of twists and story turns—and they all flow organically from the plot and the characters. That’s the best way to do it, in my opinion. Try to have them each enhance the reader’s experience in different ways.

  3. For me, leaving clues behind as a trail to how the plot will eventually fall, is perhaps one of the most fun parts of writing. Each chapter, even the ones, more about throwing the reader ‘off scent’ leave some form of clue.

    Some clues are hidden well within the context of the paragraph, and can be paradoxical, contradictory in form. Some are down-right abstract, other’s literally scream at the reader. In my second book, Who I Am, for reasons I cannot reveal (sorry) the clues often surround the reader, in dialogue, in character and in description, some are perhaps so obvious they become invisible. Perception and context are everything, informed by life experiences, learning and biology in collecting and understanding the clues left by the writer.

    For example, one of my character’s suffers with a mental health condition, I have written this sympathetically into the chapter we first meet this character, the reader is not told who this character is or their role within the story, however, it will depend on the reader’s knowledge of this condition to figure who the character is when we meet them again a few chapters on.

    I tend to write deeply evocative stories, exploring the emotions of characters and since emotions govern our underlying behaviours, thoughts and responses. Clues to how my characters may behave often sit deep within these sometimes private, sometimes revealing inner reveals and responses, rather than outward behaviours.

    Perhaps, my favourite clues, are those that smack the reader across the head. The most powerful clues, are more often or not missed. Because the reader wants to see something else, or their perception leads them to see something else. In the opening dialogue to – Her Greatest Mistake, the last sentence, gives away the biggest clue to the twist in this story, yet, from the comments I receive, on a whole – it is missed.

    Deep into my limbic system I plunge. Always the prisoner. Into the dark, I fall.
    I realise now, someone is going to die.

    My final chapter, parallels my first chapter but only with context do the clues makes sense.

  4. The best clue I ever planted taught me something about mystery writing. This was in what is probably my favorite of my early legal thrillers, LOCAL RULES. A young lawyer just passing through a small town gets pulled into court there and ends up appointed to represent a much-loathed young man. The reason the town hates this guy is because he’s believed to have murdered a teenage girl who was admired and loved by everyone. She was about to graduate from high school, had been a wonderful intern at the courthouse, and had a scholarship to a prestigious college. Then someone punched her, knocked her down, and the fall broke her neck.
    Here’s the clue: the young lawyer, Jordan, while investigating goes to visit the dead girl’s parents. A dreadful job for a lawyer, but it almost has to be done. They are very ordinary small town folks, with minor jobs but a contented life, until their daughter died. But Jordan comes away puzzled. How did the golden girl spring from this unlikely origin? When he mentions this to someone he’s told what everyone in the town knows but have half-forgotten. Jenny was adopted. No one knew who her real parents were.
    This was the clue, and I had to bury it. I couldn’t have a minor mystery like that clouding the big mystery of who killed her. Then I realized how. This is a small town. As nature abhors a vacuum, gossip abhors a mystery. If there’s a little mystery like this in a small town, gossip will solve it. Someone else tells Jordan, “Oh, we all know who Jenny’s mother was. Her adopted mother had a wild younger sister. She disappeared for a while, got killed in a car wreck while joy-riding, then her sister came home with baby Jenny. We all know Jenny’s mother was Helen’s crazy sister.”
    But the gossip was wrong. Once I realized that, the rest of the story fell into place and I wrote it almost as fast as I could type. The lesson was, you can always use gossip to plant a false solution.

  5. The famed film director Alfred Hitchcock liked to call it the “MacGuffin_– the mysterious object in a story that sets the whole chain of events into motion.
    A short story that I had published a couple of years ago– THIS CEMETERY IS MINE– had as its MacGuffin a flock of parakeets. These birds that lived in nests high above the spires of a cemetery saved a man who accidentally had been buried alive by making frantic chirping noises that alerted the groundskeepers. When the saved man returns the cemetery months later, the parakeets followed him about until the man realized that he now could communicate to the Spirits of dead people that he met ever so briefly underground until he had been rescued. These parakeets lead him on a wondrous journey under Spirit guidance who help him make mourners feel better over the loss of a loved one, but also in resolving unfinished business that the Spirits themselves left behind… sending the surviving man once buried alive off on one misadventure after another.
    A clue can appear in a story when least expected and often in the oddest of ways.

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