Saturday, January 22, 2011
Trail Blazing: Planting the Clues and Hints in Your Story
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
We’ve all read stories where clues were so seamlessly dropped in along the way that until the big secret was revealed, we never even realized they were there. But when we finally did, all the pieces of the story fell into place and we were awed by the skill in which that bread trail had been left. Those writers made it look easy, as if they knew from page one what clue went where and how it would all come together in the end.
I’m sure there are bound to be a few writers out that who really can write that way, but for most of us, those clues are either planned ahead of time, inserted after the fact, or happy accidents. Sometimes, (heck, probably most times) a combination of all three.
Planning the Trail
Some clues we know about in the planning stage of the novel. Those details that came to us as we were brainstorming and writing our outlines or making our notes. Important clues we work hard to build a scene around. Often these are the things our protag’s will discover down the line in some fashion and a critical plot twist may even hinge on them. They’re important, which is why we know about them from the start.
Stumbling Upon the Trail
Then there are those details that just kinda happen, and it isn’t until after that we realize that throwaway detail could be so much more. A bit of backstory or internalization that suddenly has greater meaning, an off-hand setting element that becomes the perfect hiding place for a long lost secret. The types of details that lurk in our brains and leak onto the page, and somehow, always seems to be better than the stuff we actively think up.
Marking the Trail
Last, there are those details that we go back and add in once we’ve figure out how the story unfolds. The purposeful red herrings, the hidden clues, the telling off-hand remark. Each detail is inserted at just the right spot so the reader can follow that trail, even if they don’t realize they’re following it.
Keeping the Trail Clean
No matter what type of writer you are (outliner or pantser), odds are you’re going to go back at some point and edit. Doing an edit pass for clues, hints, and foreshadowing isn’t a bad idea, especially if you’re not one of those mystery writers who think of these things naturally. (I think mystery writers are born with this skill) If you’re not sure where to leave those bread crumbs, try asking…
When do I want the reader to start suspecting things?
Sometimes you’ll want a surprise, other times you’ll want the tension of trying to figure it out to help pull your story along.
When does my protagonist start to figure it out?
Readers often spot things long before characters, but if it’s too obvious, then your character might look dumb if they haven’t figured it out yet. Make sure you have a good balance between reader hints and character hints. If your protagonist needs to know something by page 45, leave enough clues before then so the realization feels plausible.
Are there any slow/weak spots that could use some freshening up?
Weak spots in need of help could be opportunities to create a scene that links back or foreshadows another. Would adding in a layer of mystery help?
Do the characters encounter anything thematically or metaphorically linked to the thing?
You know how someone can say something and make you think of something different? Your brain picks up on it because there’s some link between the two things. You can do the same thing with your characters. Something they’ve heard or experienced might be the perfect trigger for a memory or realization in a later scene. Or, you can go back and add something that can make this happen.
Trails are made by folks wandering back and forth over them, so it makes sense that a good plot trail might take looking at from both ends of your novel. Knowing where a plot or subplot ends up makes it a lot easier to figure out where it starts. The more you wander that trail, the more you learn about it and the more you can share with those starting down it for the first time.
Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at Writers Sense.