Saturday, January 22

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.


  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.