How to Plant Clues in Your Story

As writers we strive to write the best story we can. Constructing stories can be difficult and complicated at times, but we do it for our readers. They love nothing more than figuring out stuff for themselves.  They like to peel away the layers and look inside the real story. They like to follow clues and they like to guess ‘whodunnit’. Clues are a way of enriching the story and creating a more enjoyable, deeper reading experience.

So, one question that writers often ask is: How do I plant clues in my narrative, and when?

Clues are a way to keep your reader interested because they impart necessary information at key moments throughout the story. They help layer the story and they can be as obvious or as subtle as you want them to be. Some clues may even be hard to spot, and readers miss them first time around, but they’re there, just waiting to be discovered. 

They are a way of helping the reader ‘connect the dots’. A clue can be anything – an object, something said in a conversation, a colour, sounds, flashbacks or even imagery, and the clue must always relate to the story, otherwise the reader won’t make any connections and won’t really understand what you’re trying to tell them.

A clue works if it’s correctly placed. Planting clues isn’t hard, but it’s about knowing what those clues should be, and it’s important that they work. For instance, let’s look at a story about a loner who lives on the outskirts of a town and – by outside appearances – keeps himself to himself, although he does venture out from time to time. He’s generally polite, if a little socially awkward, and he likes talking to children. It doesn’t stop people thinking he’s strange and so they view him with suspicion.

But is he really strange? Is he misunderstood? Or is he really a sociopath with a very disturbed mind? 

The answer will lie in the clues planted throughout the story to help the reader decide. Those clues could be about his childhood or his relationship with his parents, or an incident in the past. Physical clues are the most common, so the story could reference a framed photograph of someone on his mantelpiece. Or an object. Perhaps there’s book he reads over and over again, or a piece of jewellery that he likes to look at. Or a letter. On their own, they may seem inconspicuous, but it’s not until later in the story that they reappear that suddenly things become clear.

Dialogue is a good way to show verbal clues. Perhaps there’s something said in a conversation, a hint or juicy snippet. Perhaps a character says something that references a past incident, but which has a bearing on the story or another character. Perhaps the same thing is mentioned again further into the story, so the reader will realise it’s a clue of some kind.

Flashbacks are also useful for planting clues because they can show snippets of the character’s life hitherto unseen. It’s only further in the story, through a revelation perhaps, that the clue finally becomes clear and the reader realises the answer was there all along.

Symbolic clues are another way to hint at the reader. That could be just about anything – as long as it’s relevant to the story and pulls the different story strands together as a clue. In much the same way, motifs sometimes act as clues, too, because they show a recurring theme that ties in with the main story.

Sometimes when you read a story, the writer might deliberately mention something, which he or she won’t normally bother with, for example he might mention the knife rack in the kitchen during a descriptive passage.  Why would the writer do that unless that knife rack is going to come into play later in the book?

When to place clues depends on the story. Some stories require lots of little clues. Other stories require only a few. Placing clues early on is obviously more effective than placing them three pages from the end of the book.  Plant them little and often. You don’t have to hit the reader over the head with them, but to slip one into some description, narrative or some dialogue, or to highlight a symbol or object or colour, will work just fine. Don’t overdo it and go crazy. Less is more always works.

Next week: Irony and deception as literary devices.


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