Yesterday I was watching a Brandon Sanderson lecture while I was on the treadmill. The discussion was on point-of-view and the benefits and limitations of both first person and third person. Love Sanderson’s in-depth lectures, but he clearly is not a mystery fan.
One of his students asked how to plant clues and reveal information. Obviously, your point-of-view character is going to have to miss at least some of the clues when you first reveal them. But the information needs to be there.
Sanderson recommended giving your character a blind spot. That’s not bad advice but let’s go into it a little deeper. Here are three ways to keep your character from looking clueless.
Your Character’s Beliefs
One of the best ways to do this is the have your character’s beliefs get in the way. Perhaps the POV character is investigating the death of a friend who is said to have committed suicide but the POV character knows that can’t be true. Or the POV character can’t believe that a friend is the killer because this person is a pacifist. Or the character doesn’t want to believe that an entire class of characters is capable of X, Y, or Z.
Whatever the crime/mystery is, you can set up your character so that they simply cannot believe that someone is guilty of this event. If they believe this firmly enough, they will misinterpret events and clues that would otherwise help them solve the mystery.
Then, when the reader gets the big reveal, the reader will look back and think, “Oh, I see how that worked.”
Something Is Beyond Your Character’s Experience
If you write for young readers, you can simply make something beyond your character’s experience. They are working out the rules to how things work in school or in the larger rules. They believe that everyone works under the same rules that they were taught at home.
Because of this, they don’t question information. Or perhaps they simply do not see things that might otherwise be obvious.
Your Character Doesn’t Get Why X Is Important
Last but not least, you can set up a situation in which your character simply misses something. There could be a lot going on. Or they could notice X but then an alarm goes off, people are rushed out of the room, and by the time things calm down . . . what was that your character saw? No one is thinking about it any more.
Each and every one of us passes by dozens, even hundreds, of pieces of information every day without either taking it in or correctly interpretting it. There is just too much! Your character doesn’t have to seem clueless if you give this person a good reason to miss specific clues.