Monday, May 09, 2011

Planting Clues in Your Story

Last week, I talked about keeping your clues subtle. This week, I want to talk about how to actually put the clues into the story.

Planting effective clues is an art form. I see it as similar to a really good painting—the details and subtleties are what set it apart from everything else. But those details and subtleties are also seamless to the overall picture. In order to see them, you have to look for them, and you have to kind of know what you’re looking for.

The same is true in writing. The clues need to be seamless to the story so the reader doesn’t see them at first. Then, once the reader knows what he’s looking for, he’ll be able to find them the second time around.

How do you plant clues like this? Well, it’s not easy, but I’m going to try to outline the things you need.

First and foremost, you must know your story. If you don’t, there is no possible way to plant clues that hint at the outcome—because you don’t know the outcome. Outlining and planning is very helpful here, and will allow you to plant some initial clues that tie into the resolution. But don’t stop there. After you write a first draft, you’ll know your story even better. Then, you can go back and insert subtle clues that will create a stronger connection to the resolution.

If you’re not a planner, no big deal. Just keep this in mind: you should not start the clue-planting process until your storyline is stable. That means writing your first draft, and then revising until you’re happy that the big pieces are in place. Then you can go back and insert subtle clues.

This is just another illustration as to why it’s impossible to write a good story in one draft. :)

As you go back through your story to insert clues, think backwards: once you know the twist, then you can figure out what it would take to make it happen. For example, let’s say a teenage girl has a secret admirer. She thinks it’s one person, when really it’s another. So, what would it take for the real admirer to leave her love notes and gifts and such? Those are the little things you can plant early on so that the reader can make the connection toward the end.

On that same note, what about the non-admirer? What sort of clues make the teenage girl believe it’s him and not the real admirer? These are the red herrings that throw the reader off. Red herrings are a must! They add depth to the story, and make the connection at the end that much more satisfying. As with real clues, though, red herrings must be inserted with the same amount of care. If they’re too obvious, the reader will see through them. If they’re too subtle, the reader won’t get it and the connection will come out of the blue. Work backwards with the red herrings, as well as the real clues, and then weave them into the story. Make sure you keep them appropriately subtle.

What’s subtle, you ask? That is the million dollar question, isn’t it? :) As the author, you know everything. You know your characters, where they’re going, how they’re getting there, the traps along the way, everything. In short, you are biased, and, therefore, may or may not be able to figure this one out for yourself. If you can’t, that’s okay. That’s what your critique partners are for. :)

Last week, Natalie asked if I would list some books that I thought handled plot twists and clues well. It took me longer than I expected to come up with them, but here are a few:

Tangerine by Edward Bloor
Invisible by Pete Hautman
Inexcusable by Chris Lynch
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

Can anyone add to this list?


S Kimzey Daniels said...

Great post!

Tabitha said...


Kelly Hashway said...

I loved Tangerine! I taught that book to my 8th graders for six years. It was always their favorite book of the school year. Bloor does an excellent job planting clues along the way.

Great post, Tabitha!

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

This is good. I like the idea of reading backwards and will try that.

Lily Cate said...

I thought Holes did this pretty well, with a bit of a folklore/supernatural element.
I'm working on this very concept in my WIP right now.

Valerie Nieman said...

Great post!

Beth said...

Great post. I'll try reading backwards and see how it works out.

Tabitha said...

Kelly - Tangerine is one of my favorite books. It did a fabulous job of planting the clues, and when the big reveal came my jaw hit the floor. :)

Beverly - thanks! I've found it really helpful to work backwards for many aspects of writing.

Lily - yes! Holes is another great book that kept me guessing. It also effectively uses subplots to get the main plot going.

Valerie - thanks!

Beth - I hope you'll share with us how it works out!

Elisa Dane said...

Awesome post!

Tabitha said...

Thanks! :)

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

This is a good thing to remember. I thought I did this really well with my first book, because it was more of a mystery than my second and my betas didn't pick up on my subtle hints. It's a hard balancing act sometimes. You definitely don't want to spell everything out for people, but I think if you place not-so-subtle hints earlier on it works. A good example of this is Harry Potter. JK Rowling did a great job putting in hints, things you would definitely remember, but putting enough pages between to make it not as fresh in your memory. She did a perfect job in my oppinion.

cleemckenzie said...

Great observations here, Tabitha. And you're so right about not "getting" that novel in one draft. Forget who said this, but here's a paraphrase: "There are no great writers, only great re-writers."

Anonymous said...

Will have to re-read this one. Good post.

brenda said...

This is great info. I hadn't thought of this before, the backwards approach. I am a greedy reader, especially if the book grabs me, and then I'll hurry to read and will sometimes miss the clues, but not because of the author didn't do their job... Once I started writing, I had and still have to SLOW down when I am reading. Anyway.. thanks for the thoughtful advise.

Unknown said...

Loved your post - very helpful. Thanks for this!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for the book suggestions. I'll have to check them out, especially Pete's. I'm going to a writing craft SCBWI conference with him on Saturday and I'm in his group.

PK HREZO said...

Awesome advice. I just wrote a story with a twist, and you're so right... the first draft is just the bare bones of it. With revisions you can add so much more to polish it. I also find that by letting it sit for months at a time, you come up with even more to enhance it with.