Q&A: A Hunch Is A Vague Suspicion You Can’t Explain… Yet

Just what is a hunch in fiction? They can lead someone to the exact right move they need to make but isn’t that just experience? How can someone feel someone watching them? Just how much of that fiction is realistic when a detective has a hunch and finds their target?

A hunch is a gut feeling, a suspicion, and recognizing a pattern that puts someone on the trail. Usually, this is a vague response and you can’t put your finger on the source or cause. You notice pieces that are out of place from where they’re regularly supposed to be, they don’t jive without your understanding of the world. They don’t jive with the other examples you’ve seen before of similar behavior.

That’s all a hunch is. You know something is weird, something is off, but you can’t put your finger on it. Maybe it’s a specific person, maybe its the way the room looks, maybe it’s the evidence. You know there’s something in this pattern that doesn’t fit, but you’re using your observational skills and looking at the environment around you to find the clues.

A hunch is not psychically knowing the answer. If the hunch is leading the character to perform the exact right move to find the answer they need in the moment (rather than just a clue), then that’s sloppy writing.

Check out this setup from Law & Order:

Detective Lennie Briscoe: [in Grimes’ apartment] Hey, Ed, do you always leave your phonebook out?
Ed Green: Only if I’ve been using it.
Detective Lennie Briscoe: Yeah. There’s an old PI trick. If you had it open to a certain page, it bends the spine. It’ll open there.
[he picks the phonebook up and drops it on the table]
Detective Lennie Briscoe: Hotels. Some cheaper than others.
Ed Green: Where do we start?
Detective Lennie Briscoe: At the bottom and work our way up, I guess. – Law & Order

That right there? That’s a hunch. You know how something works, you’ve seen it work before, and so you try it to see what happens. If you’re right, you might find a clue. In this case, you use a book on the regular and leave it open then the spine bends. It opens on the page you’ve been using. A detective comes along, wants to know what you’ve been looking at, they can use the PI trick Briscoe talks about to figure it out. That doesn’t solve the mystery, it just gives you clues. We don’t even know this guy went to any of these hotels, we know he was looking at these hotels.

Hunches augment evidence collection. Collecting evidence is how you solve crimes. Crimes are puzzles, you have the aftermath but have to work backwards to figure out method and motivation. Hunches are how you get the ball rolling on finding the pieces of the puzzle you need. That’s where your intuition, experience, and pattern recognition do the work. They’re here to push the detective in the direction the narrative needs. What they should not be doing is providing the detective or the audience with the solution.

In the hardcore mystery novel genre, its necessary to provide your audience with the pieces of the puzzle before the detective puts it all on the table. This gives the audience a chance to solve the mystery, letting them work through the same information the detective has. The structure of the mystery novel leaves the solution to mystery in the final chapter, giving the audience a chance to solve the puzzle for themselves. The solution comes after the climax.

For reference, Law & Order is a procedural and not a mystery. However, procedurals can be very helpful for figuring out how police carry out an investigation which will in turn help you be better at writing mysteries. Also better at understanding hunches.

When you’ve got a character who is predictive with laser accuracy, you know the author already has the solution in mind and the character has access to what the author knows. This works with a character who has access to outside knowledge or committed the crime themselves like Vick Mackie from The Shield. He’s working backwards because he did it, Shane did it, someone in his squad did it, and he’s covering it up.  It doesn’t work with a character who’s a “super detective” because they’re starting from nothing, even when they’ve got experience they still need to work through the crime.

The thing about general crime is that it’s usually not that mysterious, the pieces are often pretty obvious. Criminals aren’t that smart, especially those criminals who haven’t made crime a career. The vast majority of people committing crimes aren’t masterminds, and often this is their first time out. Which is also where they’ll make the most mistakes. If you’ve watched lots of people screw up over a prolonged period of time then you’ll get a sense for how people who’ve committed similar crimes behave.

One of my favorite examples of this is with Logan and Briscoe in an episode of Law & Order where they were called to a break in and the first five minutes of the episode was them discussing how moronic these people is because of all the mistakes they made. Such as the broken glass being on the wrong side of the window, and the door being broken in the wrong direction. (Because it swings out you see.) They broke out rather than in, and the screwdriver is from inside the office but was left outside. They went into the building to grab the screwdriver to then break back in. Genius.

The point of the story is most people don’t think like criminals. So, when they go to commit a crime they try to behave the way they think a criminal might be expected to but go after what they think is valuable. They try to break into the safe, rather than going for all the obvious and opportunistic stuff lying around. Thief is going to go after what the thief thinks is valuable, which is whatever is easily available and can be fenced fast so they can get in and out and gone. If you’ve got a thief who goes after the safe but never cased the desk or found the money in it, then that’s a sign something is going on. What the criminal on the street thinks is valuable versus what a guy who spends everyday of his life in that room and knows what in there is actually valuable are very different.

This is the sort of behavior that provides the opportunity for hunches. If something is out of place, you as the investigator is going to want to know why. If you’re not asking why, then something has gone wrong with the writing. A mystery is about asking questions, those questions lead to other questions that you then provide evidence for until you have the pieces you need to solve the puzzle. That starts with a gut feeling. The gut feeling leads you to your question because you’ve noticed something is just plain weird, and you as an investigator are a naturally curious individual.

You know how people are supposed to behave in a situation, but they didn’t. So, if the obvious is not the answer then what is? Well, now we need to develop the hunch into a theory and then find evidence to prove the theory. It is scientific, not instinctual. The detective’s experience with solving crimes couples with their empirical understanding of human nature which allows them greater pattern recognition. The major difference between you and me and a police detective is they’ve got a better idea of what they should be looking for and what it feels like when things don’t fit.

However, the detective’s biases are also at play and manipulating their hunches. The famous example of this is Sherlock Holmes with Irene Adler, where the conclusion absolutely makes sense if you remember Holmes is still a member of the British gentry and polite society. Or, if you understand anything about Victorian gender politics. Holmes’ opinion of women is a victim of British societal norms and he cannot imagine a woman behaving the way Irene does. Therefore, he misses her entirely. He’s a contemporary of the women in Jane Austen’s novels. Would you imagine Mrs. Bennet behaving like Irene Adler? No? That’s Holmes’ problem. He comes from a period where women were trained and not educated, of course he’s going to be biased.

The detective’s own selection biases will play a part in which hunches they follow and which they disregard. Often to their detriment.

Remember, detectives aren’t omniscient.

If they were, we wouldn’t have any reason to be reading the mystery. If the narrative is not a puzzle then it isn’t worth working out. The mystery genre is, in many ways, about the reader being smarter than the author rather than the other way around. You’re not supposed to be surprised or have the clues hidden, but rather you want the reader to figure it out. When they go back, it will all make sense.

On a basic worldbuilding level, your protagonist needs to be finding the evidence anyway. If you can’t get those pieces, you have no case and no means to convict and the criminal will get away. It doesn’t matter in the end whether or not the detective is right, what matters is whether or not they can prove it. Plenty of good detective fiction ends without the villain behind bars. While the detective ultimately solved the case, they had no means or power to bring the villain to justice. See: Chinatown.

Kostas Theodoulos: This lady, she was putting up a fight. The guy pulls a gun and just pops her. Bang.
Ed Green: Because she wouldn’t get out of the car?
Kostas Theodoulos: Looked like. This city’s a cesspool. Two years ago, guy comes into my shop, points a gun. Give him whatever he wants. Nothing’s worth your life.
Ed Green: Those are words to live by.
Detective Lennie Briscoe: Or die by. – Law & Order

As for someone watching you, sometimes that’s experience, sometimes it’s paranoia, and sometimes it’s both. Sometimes, you just can’t tell.

The traditional seedy Private Investigator is usually an exceedingly paranoid individual who sees the darkest aspects of humanity in every corner they look. When they start getting close to the real outcome of a case, they’re going to think someone’s watching them. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong.

Remember, they’re not omniscient and that question of uncertainty is part of what makes a mystery great. This is a game between the person trying to solve the puzzle and the person who doesn’t want the puzzle solved. The detective only has so many options and only so many chances at truth before their chances of being believed run out. If you contact the police with a solution to the mystery, you damn well better have your ducks in order. If you’ve made an enemy of every detective in the police station by being a total asshole, no matter how skilled you are at solving cases, that may ultimately affect whether or not one of them believes you when the time comes. Or is even willing to help. After all, they’re very busy people with cases of their own. If you’re a private citizen like a private investigator, your options of bringing a villain to justice under the long arm of the law are limited.

Before someone goes, “but Sherlock Holmes…” I’m going to point out that Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a complete a-hole to every investigator in Scotland Yard. There are quite a few he gets on with just fine. He was mostly a jerk to Lestrade. He’s unsociable by the standards of Victorian expectations, he’s weird, and he cultivates odd connections among the lower classes. In fact, it’s Holmes’ willingness to look past the strict cast confines of nineteenth century British social strata that allows him to be so effective as a detective. As a man and as a member of the gentleman class, Holmes does, however, have the option to be weird. The major complaint about him is not his arrogance, but his unwillingness to conform to convention and behave “appropriately”. This translates to: he’s a jerk to people in his own sphere, to rich people, and not poor people. He doesn’t follow society’s rules, and the society of his time was very closeted, very caste based, and extremely unsympathetic to those outside its very narrow band. For a gentleman in Victorian England, that’s a big deal. This is one of the qualities that has made Holmes so sympathetic and popular, his willingness to thumb his nose at convention.

What Holmes usually doesn’t do as a character is cut his nose off to spite his face. He understands the society he exists in, and knows what he can get away with. If you consider that he is a member of the gentlemen leisure class with familial ties to Parliament, the answer is legion. He gets away with legion.

The other thing to understand about Holmes is he was on the cutting edge of scientific advancements and techniques regarding the solving of crimes. Many of which are in practice today. If you simply bring Holmes forward into the modern era without any changes, he’d be subpar in comparison to your average police detective. He’s not just super smart, and time marches on. If you want a modern Holmes, he’d be on the technological cutting edge of disciplines like forensics rather than just a big brain.

A good detective is ultimately a master when it comes to understanding the culture he or she lives and works in.

In detective fiction, the hunch serves as the first clue in the case, the point at which the detective becomes invested in the puzzle rather than say the money.  The first we have that the case isn’t exactly what it appears to be. Things are weird. It isn’t open and shut.

Your first hunch can be wrong, by the way. The detective’s hunch can be entirely off base, and evidence will point them in a new direction. They may see something that was never be there to begin with. Or, their initial hunch may seem wrong in the middle of the book but leads them back around to the same conclusion just in a way neither they nor the audience expects.

There is always the possibility the detective is wrong, or will not accuse the right person. That’s part of what makes a mystery so exciting. The putting together of the pieces, the stakes involved with being right and the consequences of being wrong, rather than neatly wrapping up the story with the right conclusion. The process of the detective figuring out the story, putting the pieces together (as the audience theorizes with them) is the fun of a mystery novel.

A conclusion that the detective knew all along and we never had a reason to doubt them or events is not particularly exciting. In a well-written mystery the clues are all always there, and they make logical sense when the reader works through them. The detective’s hunches come from reason and the audience should be able to understand their thought process. Except for the times, the murders are just so weird they defy imagination. There’s no way you could guess, and the detective probably shouldn’t either as a gut reaction.

I mean, seriously, if your detective manages to get a hunch that tells them early in the narrative that the series of strange murders is the result of an escaped orangutan climbing through people’s windows and hiding up the chimney flue then that’s going to be really dumb.

I mean, why in the world would you think that without any evidence?




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