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Friday, January 13

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 trail had been created. 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 writers out that who really do write that way, but for many 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.

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

Planning the Trail

Some clues we know we want to add to certain scenes before we start the novel, and they might even be clues we built the scene around. They likely drive the plot at a major turning point, such as ends of acts or pinch points. The discovery of this clue or reveal moves the plot forward, and there will be scenes that lead directly to this moment. Ask:
  • What clues must be in the novel?
  • When would the discovery of a clue have the most impact?
  • What clues need to sneak by the reader?
  • What’s the right scene to “hide” a clue within?
(Here’s more on foreshadowing with the Rule of Three)

Stumbling Upon the Trail

Other clues just happen, and it isn’t until after the draft is done that we realize a throwaway detail could mean so much more 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. These “lucky accident” details lurk in our brains and leak onto the page, and are frequently better than the clues we actively think up. It’s the best of our subconscious at work. Look for:
  • Random actions or moments that could have greater meaning.
  • Situations or actions that mirror something that occurs later in the story.
  • Moments that have the same result as something later in the story.
  • Details that reveal backstory or something about the characters that could mean more. 

    Marking the Trail

    Then there are the clues we add to the story once we’ve figure out how that story unfolds. The purposeful red herrings, the half-revealed secrets, the telling off-hand remark—all crafted specifically to evoke a desired response in our readers. 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. Look for:
    • Places to nudge the protagonist toward the clue or realization they’ll need to have later.
    • Places where a clue could easily be misunderstood by what’s going in that scene and throw readers off.
    • Conversations that could mean multiple things.
    • Places where the subtext might not be what readers think when they first read it.
    (Here’s more on making the most of accidental foreshadowing)

    Keeping the Trail Clean

    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 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 the story along. You might even want to pique curiosity, then lead readers in the wrong direction for a bit to mislead them.

    When does my 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 page 45, leave enough clues on the way there so the realization feels plausible.

    Are there any slow or 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. 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? 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 that trigger and make this realization happen when you need it.

    Trails are made by folks repeatedly using a path, so it makes sense that a good plot trail might take several trips through the manuscript. 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 clues you can leave for those stepping onto it for the first time.

    How do you like to blaze your clue trails?

    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:
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    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:
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    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.
    Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

    Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at Writers Sense.


    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.