By Annette Lyon
Imagine that you’re reading an Agatha Christie novel. In the last chapter, Poirot calls the cops, tells them who committed the murder, and goes on his way, saying that of course everyone knows why Jeremy Jones is the one being carted off to jail.
After your confusion clears, you’d probably hurl the book against the wall in frustration. (Unless you were reading on a Kindle, in which case, you’d delete the dang thing with a strong click.)
Every story has mysteries and story questions. One of the biggest jobs a writer has is making sure that as the mysteries are revealed and the questions are answered, the reader isn’t confused to the point of book throwing.
Striking a balance between over- and under-explaining is tricky. When a story is underexplained, the reader doesn’t have enough information to figure things out. Chances are, what you thought was obvious, well, isn’t.
Imagine another scenario: you’re nearby and overhear a conversation begin between my older sister and me. One of us mentions the time we got pedicures together. You walk off for a minute and come back, only to hear us discussing DNA-evidence gathering. (This conversation actually happened.) Now, if you’d overheard the entire conversation, you’d know how we the discussion moved, one step at a time, from one topic to another. But having missed the middle, you’d be dumbfounded as to how we ended up discussing forensic science.
Avoiding confusion is only one reason to deliberately place the breadcrumbs in a planned-out path. Another is the cathartic effect of fiction, the satisfaction of vicariously experiencing problems that work out in ways that we understand and connect to.
If breadcrumbs are placed too close together, the reader feels spoon fed. On the other hand, you’d better drop enough of them for the reader to follow them along the winding forest path without getting lost as they search for the next one.
The best stories are when the reader figures things out right along with the characters, either at the same pace they do, or a split second before the character does (which makes the reader feel really smart, even though you set it up that way.)
Here’s an example situation: Joe and Maggie begin chasing a vagrant in a parking lot, down an alley, and over a fence. They have a good reason. You as the author know the reason. And you don’t want to bog down the pace by stopping to show a bunch of boring stuff. Except without showing something, the reader will be totally clueless as to why Joe and Maggie chased the homeless guy.
A common problem with breadcrumbs is the reverse problem: we’re told why, but not how the character came to that conclusion—we’re supposed to intuit that.
Let’s go back to Joe and Maggie. She spots the vagrant and suddenly yells, “Look, Joe! It’s your long-lost grandfather who stole your family fortune! He’s got the secrets to solving the family mystery and getting the relic back!”
So off they go, chasing the vagrant over a chain-link fence, through an alley, and up a fire escape, finally to catch the guy on the roof, rip off his fake beard, and reveal that indeed, the man is Joe’s long-lost grandfather.
In this case, we’re told why, but how in the world did Maggie come to that conclusion, and why did Joe believe her? We need more information. That means backing up and planting more breadcrumbs—setting up the scene earlier so we’ll recognize Joe’s grandfather at the same moment Maggie does. (And that horrible dialog won’t be needed, either!)
I can think of a couple of dozen questions surrounding the Joe/Maggie/grandfather situation, none of which is clear in the moment.
What if, in an earlier chapter, Maggie sees a photograph on the wall of Joe’s grandfather, wearing a unique scarf his wife made for him. When Maggie sees the man, she recognizes the scarf and knows, right along with the reader, that man must be Joe’s grandfather, or he somehow got the old man’s scarf.
Every snippet of information that builds toward the greater whole is a breadcrumb that helps the reader move from one level of understanding and progression to another.
A few tips for adding clues/breadcrumbs:
- Slow down in the moment. If you’re rushing, you may be skipping over important information, thoughts, and connections.
- Go back to place breadcrumbs. If you don’t figure out how Maggie recognizes the grandfather until chapter fifteen, no problem. Slip in a bit about the scarf earlier. Fine-tuning the placement of breadcrumbs is the magic of revision!
- Use action to show how characters move from one state of mind to another, one place to another, etc.
- Use dialog. Have your characters puzzle out a problem together. Have them challenge each other, debate, insist on evidence.
- Use internal monologue. In much the same way you can use dialog, have the character puzzle out a problem alone. They can even argue different points with themselves.
The challenge is finding the spots where you’ve inadvertently jumped from breadcrumb B to conclusion Y, only to land on a different set of breadcrumbs—and a new starting point.
Sometimes you can find them on your own, but it’s always a good idea to have others read your work and mark spots they find confusing, jumpy, or too fast. Those areas are almost always missing something. The solution: add the missing breadcrumbs.
Plots are a series of causally connected events. While the reader doesn’t need to be shown every moment, every word, every thought—and would be bored to tears if they were—they do need enough breadcrumbs along the forest trail to go from point A to point B, all the way to Z, where they close the book with a satisfied sigh.
Annette Lyon is a USA Today bestselling author, Whitney Award winner and League of Utah Writers winner of several publication awards, including the Silver Quill. She has won Utah’s Best of State medal for fiction five times. When she’s not writing, knitting, mothering, or eating chocolate, she’s typically ignoring the spots on the kitchen floor and binge watching Gilmore Girls. She has four kids and a Siamese flame-tipped cat with an attitude. She (Annette, not the cat) is represented by Heather Karpas at ICM Partners. Check out her newest book, SONG BREAKER, a retelling of a Nordic fairy tale.