Wednesday, December 02, 2020

How to Sneak Clues Past Your Readers and Keep Them Guessing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Some writers weave clues so seamlessly into a novel, we never even realize they’re there until they all converge in the end. 

My subconscious is a better writer than I am. It drops in details and makes connections in my first drafts that I don’t see until the next draft—if at all. 

Sometimes, it takes the sharp eyes of my critique group to spot the "clever things" I’ve written that I’m totally unaware of (grin). 

I suspect your subconscious does this, too.

It’s only natural. Stories churn in our heads even when we aren’t consciously thinking about them. Our brains remember throwaway details and build on them without our input.

And when we make the connections, we get that rush and think, “oooo that is soooo cool.

I’m sure there are writers out that who know from page one what clue goes where and how it will all come together in the end, but for most of us, we don’t know every clue ahead of time. We insert them after the first draft (or second, or third), or they’re happy accidents. Sometimes (heck, probably most times), a combination of all three.

It takes a lot of work to craft a seamless clue.

Finding the balance between subtle and glaringly obvious is tough. You know so much about your story and what the clue means, that it’s almost impossible for you to determine if readers will get it or not. If you’re too subtle, the clue gets missed and the scene or plot point where it matters ends in reader confusion. When it's too obvious? Readers see the answer coming a mile away and the story becomes predictable.

Creating a seamless trail of clues takes more than luck, so here are some things to consider when leaving hints for your readers:

Mark the path you know you want to take. 

There are clues you know you want to drop in the story from the start. Go ahead and plan those however you normally would. If you're not sure what the right clues are for the story, try a little brainstorming to get the wheels turning.  

To find the clues, ask:
  • What clues must be in the novel?
  • When would the discovery of each clue have the most impact?
  • What clues need to sneak by the reader?
  • What’s the right scene to “hide” a clue within?

Embrace your inner Moriarty (or whoever your favorite criminal mastermind is).

It's a lot easier to plant clues when you think about them from the perspective of the antagonist. How did they commit the crime? What steps did they use to set the trap? How did they do whatever it is they did in the novel? Actually "committing the crime" in the story forces you to figure out exactly what happened and how, and then you see what clues might have left behind for the protagonist to find.

It’s much harder to look at the same scene from the protagonist’s perspective and think about what they might find or see. It's too easy to create a cool clue that isn't what the bad guy actually left. You wind up making the crime fit the clue, which often leads to murky plotting because you don't truly know how it got there.  

To plan your "crime," ask:
  • How was the "crime" committed? (whatever happened that requires a clue left behind)
  • What clues might have been left behind?
  • What did the antagonist touch or interact with? 
  • Who might have seen them?
  • What other senses might come into play? Such as, a perfume that lingers, a loose shutter than bangs, a mirror slightly askew that shines light into the protagonist's eyes. 

These “lucky accident” details lurk in your brain and leak onto the page, and are frequently better than the clues you actively think up (probably because they're digging deeper to find them). 

Unfortunately, it isn’t until after the draft is done that you realize a throwaway detail means so much more, or could be important with a tweak or two. Quite often, it’s a bit of backstory or internalization that suddenly has greater meaning, or an off-hand setting element that becomes the perfect hiding place for a long lost secret.

To find these hidden gems, look for:
  • Random actions or moments that could have greater meaning.
  • Situations or actions that mirror something that occurs elsewhere in the story.
  • Moments that have the same result as something elsewhere in the story.
  • Details that reveal backstory or something about the characters that could mean more.

(Here’s more on Make the Most of Accidental Foreshadowing)

Manipulate your readers (it’s for their own good, really).

Ah, the red herrings, the half-revealed secrets, the telling off-hand remark—all crafted specifically to evoke a desired response in your readers. These clues are there just to throw readers off track, or distract them from the real clues you’re not ready for them to figure out yet.

The sneaky clues are particularly tricky, because if they seem too out of the blue, they won’t feel plausible, but if they’re too authentic, readers might expect the plot to go that way (and be disappointed if it doesn’t).

You often add these clues once you’ve figured out how the story unfolds and where you can sneak misinformation past the reader. Each detail is inserted at just the right spot so readers can follow that trail, even if they don’t realize they’re following it.

For red herrings and distractions, look for:
  • Places where a clue could easily be misunderstood by what’s going on in that scene.
  • Conversations that could mean multiple things.
  • Places where the subtext might not be what readers think when they first read it.
  • Places to nudge the protagonist toward a thought or realization they’ll need to have later.
  • Places where you can drop in a fake clue in right before a real clue, so readers overlook the real one.

(Here’s more on Write What They Don’t Know: Manipulating Your Reader for Better Plots) 

Check and double check the details.

Once the first draft is written, it’s not a bad idea to do an edit pass specifically to check for clues, hints, and foreshadowing, especially if you’re not one of those writers who thinks 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 you want readers to start suspecting things? Sometimes you’ll want a surprise, other times you’ll want the tension to help pull the story along. You might even want to pique curiosity, then lead readers in the wrong direction for a while to mislead them.

When does your protagonist start to figure it out? Readers often spot things 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. Also, if your protagonist needs to know something by a particular time, leave enough clues on the way so the realization feels plausible.

Are there any slow or weak spots that could use some freshening up? Weak spots in the plot are opportunities to create a scene that drops a clue or foreshadows another scene. Maybe that slower emotional scene could result in a realization or discovery of a clue. Maybe that too-fast action sequence can reveal a secret that makes the character pause to reflect on it just long enough for a much-needed breather.

Do the characters encounter anything thematically or metaphorically linked to the clue? Segues can be useful. A character might pick up on a clue because there’s a link between it and something said or seen. 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 that trigger and make this realization happen when you need it.

A good plot trail might take several passes to weave it into the manuscript, so don't worry if it takes you a few tries to get it right. It's not uncommon to need to know how the story unfolds before the final clues can fall into place.

The easier a novel looks, the harder it probably was to write.

The novels that look effortless are usually the ones that took the most work to write, so if planting clues and crafting a clever mystery doesn’t happen on your first draft, don’t fret over it. Just keep working on the right places to hide and reveal your clues, and it’ll all look seamless in the end.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Examine the clues and reveals in your novel. Are there enough to lead readers where you want them to go? Are they clear? Too clear and obvious? Are there red herrings to keep the solution from being too predictable? Fix anything that needs tweaking.

Do your clues come to you ahead of time, or do you have to add them after the first draft? Or both? 

*Originally published January 2011. Last updated December 2020.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Stumbling on the trail -I love when that happens! One thing I've noticed about going back and forth to add in clues is that (for me) it's easy to loose perspective. Sometimes I'll add clues that are too obvious and not realize it. Beta readers are a great help with picking up on that sort of thing. :)

  2. Much as I enjoy reading mystery novels, I haven't had the nerve to try writing one, because of that whole clue thing. Of course the trail you're talking about happens in other novels as well, so we all have to figure it out to some extent.

    My friend Louise Spiegler (The Amethyst Road) has that kind of gift. Reading her novels in progress, you see all these threads and wonder how on earth she is going to tie them together. If you ask her, she won't be able to tell you. But somehow, in the end, it all works out!

    I guess some people have an instinct for it, and some of us have to do more conscientious planning, and some figure out the trail in revisions. Another example of the fact that there is no one right way to do things!

  3. I loved this post.

    I really have to pay close attention to bread crumbs as some of the things I mention in the current beast of an epic will unfold in later books.

    There's also that fact that I have two story lines and a boatload of characters and factions - each with their own agenda.

    There's a reason while I call it the beast.


  4. I just discovered your blog this week, and I'm so glad I did! So far your posts are chock full of useful tips.

  5. I agree with the "Stumbling Along" part. Those are always my favorite clues. They make me feel like a genius. ;)

  6. Oh, yesyesyes! All good stuff, especially the Stumbling on the Trail part, that those clues can be WAY better than the things we think up ahead of time. I love those happy little "accidents." Our subconscious often figures clues out better than our consciousness does!

    And now I have to go analyze my breadcrumbs some more...

  7. This is one of the hardest things to do! In my head, because 'I know', I often see clues in things that someone else wouldn't. A good beta reader is very useful - even one who is not a writer per say...An outsider to point out the places where they go "Huh?" Thanks again for this very useful post!

  8. Chicory: Betas are priceless for that. "Is this too obvious?" is such a great and tough question to know sometimes. I sense another post coming on, lol, thanks!

    Chris: Exactly. I also have a good friend who writes mysteries, and we've had fun debating how "hard" the other genre is. I don;t know how she keeps track of all those clues but she's good at it.

    Misha: Sounds like a lot to keep track of, but smart of you to do so. I actually went back to book one to see if there were any crumbs lying around that might turn into things in later books. And there were!

    Lisa: Thanks, and welcome to the blog! Good to have you.

    Mallory: LOL I know that exact feeling.

    Carol: My subconscious is a way better writer than I am :) It's always putting together connections I never planned.

    Roberta: For finding clues, a non-writer beta might even be better. Writers know what to look for, while a reader just sees the story.

  9. As always, fabulous post. Your tips about the breadcrumbs are spot on. I hate it when things are too obvious or unresolved, and you've got a solution for both.

    And I don't know if I've said so before, but I really love that you include links to other posts that expand on your comments. Very grateful for that. Thanks.

  10. Another great post! I ten to dump everything on my reader at once, so leaving hints and foreshadowing (subtly) is definitely always on my radar when revising :)

  11. Cassandra Malone2/11/2017 12:24 PM

    Hi. I'm writing my first book. So I need all the help I can get. Thank you for this post.

  12. Karyn Devinney4/09/2018 4:30 PM

    I love foreshadowing and clues. My favorite way to incorporate such things is character dialogue that could have more than one meaning. If a character is hiding something, I like to have them tell the truth, technically, but still be lying his/her head off without the reader or POV character realizing. I've often gone back while rereading my own work and found foreshadowing I hadn't notice. (Always more fun than finding the detail discrepancies I know are lurking in there too.) While reading, once I realize there was foreshadowing, I'm always eager to reread the book and find all the clues. Re-readability is a great aspect to strive for in any writing. It's the sort of thing that gets me buying a hard copy instead of borrowing the library's or somewhat.

  13. Such a good post. Some of this I am doing subconsciously, but I love this mini roadmap to use for revisions. THANK-YOU!

    1. Thanks! I think we do a lot of writing subconsciously. Things churn in the backs of our brains and spill out onto the page. We also learn and process what we read and how stories are put together. Writing about writing made me realize that when I was forced to think about what I did and why I did it. Part of the fun, really, hehe.