Mystery story tropes and how they work

The hint written in yellow graffiti script on a wall Every story genre has some conventions – or tropes – that must be there to satisfy the reader. A romance must have  a happy ending – or it’s not a romance. Mysteries must have clues and distractions and red herrings.

There are some mystery tropes that get over used, and some that are used in such creative ways that you hardly recognize them. The guest star on any TV crime drama is always the perp – a trope. The red shirt always dies first on Star Trek – a trope.

Tropes are usually not supposed to jump out and hit you on the head, but sometimes they do.

Here are three tropes for mystery writing and some examples of how they are used.

 Chekhov’s gun

Not the Star Trek Chekhov – the author.  It’s a fancy way of saying foreshadowing. A gun on the mantlepiece is just another item in the scene, but it becomes important in the end.

This is frequent in television crime series. You’ll see the evidence laid out and something simple is there that everyone ignores. In the end it’s the murder weapon. The Closer series (sad it’s gone, but loving Major Crimes) does a great job of this. Brenda will interrogate a suspect and get stuck on that one little thing that pushes them over the edge. Then later in conversations with Fritz, or momma, or daddy and they’ll say something that triggers her memory.

The red herring

One of my favorites. This is the clue that leads the investigator down the wrong path. And it wastes time and frustrates everyone. Sometimes the reader is well aware that the detective is after a red herring, but is entertained by the search and revelation of the trick.

There are so many great examples of this that I find it hard to pick one. Agatha Christie was a master of this. She’d plant clues, or people, throughout and surprise everyone at the end. In my opinion, she would often unfairly surprise the reader too. Her red herrings were not often set up well – there should always be at least a suggestion that the red herring is just that.

The magical database

I mentioned this in my post about mystery mistakes. This is most evident in TV and movies because the passage of time is more obvious, but it is a convention in books too. The computer scans fingerprint databases for a match (often of very few points of reference) and voila there’s a match. Or it scans hours of video recordings and finds our villain leaving the scene of the crime – and it can do that in reflections of pieces of his/her face.

It’s used in all of the CSI franchises and any other high-tech show. The cast of these shows all seem to be geniuses who know everything about their chosen field and I often wonder why they take so long to figure out the clues.

What tropes do you notice in your favorite mysteries? Are they entertaining, or do they get in the way?