You know when you read an amaaaazing novel and you think: “Gosh, that’s so clever the way the author interweaved all those little clues and hints together, dropping breadcrumbs all the way from the beginning, but I didn’t understand their true significance until the big reveal and man oh mannnn I wish I was able to orchestrate something so complex and delicate…”?
Well, you don’t really think that happened on the first draft, do you?
Oh hell no. That kind of literary complexity is only achieved after a whole pile of shitty drafts and a whole load of painstaking editing and a whole bunch of angsty brain-smashing. That big satisfying payoff was retro-engineered by subtly inserting a bunch of relevant nuggets of information in just the right places.
And so, as you plough through that first/second/nineteenth draft, trying desperately to tie up all our loose ends, it can be useful to do a bit of back-pedalling to make sure we hit that big climax with as much impact as possible. And that means paving the way with all those little breadcrumbs. And THAT, my friends, is what we call ‘seeding a story’.
Luke… I am your father…
OMG plot twist! To use a well-known example, at the end of The Empire Strikes Back we discover that Luke’s arch enemy and cape-swishing asthma-sufferer Darth Vader is actually his DAD. Shocker.
So how did we get to this point?
- In A New Hope, ‘orphan’ Luke meets Obi Wan who tells him his father was a great Jedi and bequeaths him his dad’s lightsaber. Obi Wan also reveals that Darth Vader was once his student before he turned to the dark side, and Darth Vader ‘destroyed’ Luke’s father.
- Later on, we discover that Darth Vader can sense Luke’s presence whenever he’s near – almost as if they have some sort of special connection… <strokey chin emoji>
- While training to be a Jedi, Luke is told that the Force is strong in his family and there is another Skywalker (and ew, Luke, you just snogged your sister).
- In their final face-off at the end of Empire, Darth offers Luke the chance to join him – he doesn’t really wanna kill him because HE’S LUKE’S DAD OMFG
Ahem. You get the point. Now it’s your turn:
First, write one sentence that sums up the information that needs back-seeding, eg: Oedipus kills his dad and marries his mother – oops!
Then write a list of hints that can be dropped in along the way: eg:
- Oedipus’ parents are told a prophecy that their son will kill his father so they hobble him (ouch) and abandon him on a hilltop.
- After he’s taken in by a pair of kindly and non-murderous adoptive parents, a frickin’ oracle tells Oedipus he’s destined to kill his pa but he assumes they mean his new dad so runs away.
- [At this point, two identical prophecies should have been enough to avert any kind of tragedy but this is ancient Greece so just go with it.]
- On his way to Thebes he gets in a barney with a guy on the road and kills him, like you do, because once again this is ancient Greece and this is totally acceptable behaviour. When he gets to the city he finds out that the king was just murdered – oh no, I wonder who could have possibly done it?
- Long story short, he answers the Sphinx’s riddle, becomes ruler of Thebes, and ends up married to the dead king’s wife, Jocasta, who completely fails to notice the hobbling scars on her new hubby’s feet or any other familial resemblance.
- And so on and on – plague hits Thebes and will only be lifted when the old king’s murderer is driven outta town but Jocasta’s like, ‘Oh, don’t listen to silly prophecies, that one about my son never came true – uhhh, hang on a minute…’
Sprinkle those breadcrumbs…
Once you’ve figured out your big revelation (or revelations – there may be more than one!) and made a little list of potential breadcrumbs, then it’s time to flesh out your clues and find a way to weave them seamlessly into your existing story, like so:
- Use your list of points to make a super specific checklist of information your protag/reader needs to know for the final reveal. NOTE: It’s okay to be super-obvious at this point – you can always scale down the clues as you edit. Similarly, you might find you have LOADS of ideas for hints and it ends up as overkill – that’s fine, too. The more the merrier at this point; you can refine and reduce later.
- Make a little spider diagram or flow chart or spreadsheet that traces the progression of breadcrumbs all the way through your story to the end. You might have a few different strands to follow – just like your subplots – so use different colours to differentiate them. But once you’ve mapped them out, you should begin to see if there are any points where your trail goes cold or needs to be clearer.
- Vary the way you offer information to the reader and experiment with different ways to drop your little crumbs, such as: flashback and backstory, inner monologues and internal thoughts, dialogue between characters, significant objects, recurring themes, and general observation (oh look, my husband’s feet are scarred in exactly the same way that we crippled our baby all those years ago…).
Connect The Dots…
Next, it’s time for a little subtlety, because sometimes it’s the things you DON’T say that are most important. The best thing about paying off a plot twist is ensuring your readers only figure it out at the last possible moment – but when they do, they feel like they’ve accomplished something. If you think your breadcrumbs are glaringly obvious, don’t panic. It can be really hard to be objective about these things when you’re so close to a story, so a second opinion is a good thing to have. But also, think about how you can get to that big revelation with the bare minimum of clues. Think about what your characters know (or believe to be true) and how far they’re prepared to go to find out the truth. The great thing about humans is we gleefully lie to ourselves to avoid pain, discomfort, or emotional distress. Is your character simply refusing to face up to something obvious? Or is another character actively trying to hide something from them? Build up the layers of deception until they can’t possibly stay hidden any more, and then punch us in the face with your big revelation.
Another good tip when trying to weave in those clues as subtly as possible is to make them commonplace, believable, and otherwise unremarkable. Going back to Oedipus for a moment, as horrible as it might seem, leaving disabled or sickly babies to die of exposure was commonplace in ancient Greece. Similarly, it was legal to fight and even kill someone on the road over a right-of-way dispute. In isolation, neither of these incidents lead us to believe that something fishy is going on – and, more importantly, they both advance the plot without seeming out of place. Oedipus’ abandonment makes us sympathetic towards him, and his quarrel on the road shows us he has a strong sense of honour (in ancient Greek terms, at least). When it comes to the tragic reveal, we will continue to feel sympathetic towards him, despite the horrific and cringeworthy circumstances, and we will (try to) understand his actions when he does the only ‘honourable’ thing he can thing of in recompense: to blind himself and live the rest of his life as a beggar.
It’s also worth mentioning that often these breadcrumbs will be connected to your subplots (more on that here), which is a nice way to make these all important clues are sidelined in a natural way, and inevitably come to fruition as you begin to tie up all the story threads at the end. And once again, let us remind you that you should NOT expect this kind of intricate tinkering to be perfect on your first go round – this is late-stage editing work, fine-tune tweaking, and last-minute epiphany stuff. You can’t possibly see where to sprinkle your breadcrumbs and how to connect your dots until you have the story down solidly and can step back to look at things objectively, so give yourself time to let it all percolate. You’ll get there in the end…
Bonus Book Rec
If you haven’t already read it, you must, must, MUST read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (and even if you have – read it again!). Why? Because it’s a great big enormous son of a bitch that totally breaks the breadcrumb rule in the most spectacularly devastating way.
Without spoiling anything, the book is narrated by Death who begins by telling the reader right off the bat that several central characters are gonna die. I mean, okay, we’re all gonna die sometime, but they’re gonna die during the story. At this point, a few pages in, your narrative brain goes ‘errr, you can’t say that’ and then you carry on reading, developing emotional attachment to all these characters and trying to pre-empt the moment when you’re going to have your heart ripped out while sort of going into denial and convincing yourself that Death is just tricking you and everything’s going to be alright and then… ugh. Gahhhh. It’s so effective, and all the breadcrumbs are there, plain to see (just like Oedipus’ prophecy) – especially the one where the narrator says: THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN LATER.
Read it. Cry. Then revel in the knowledge that there are no rules to writing and really you can do whatever the hell you like so long as you figure out a way to pull it off.
Now go forth, seed your story, and watch the plotlines sprout…