Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Planting the solution early

by Stephanie Morrill

Jill blogged months ago about writing fight scenes and how if you have a character throwing a vase, you should be sure earlier to "show" that the vase is there.

The same principle applies to preparing your reader for the "aha!" moment in the story.

As a reader, it's great when the character puts together the answer for his or her problems, and we're surprised by it ... yet we had the information we needed to put it together for ourselves. But this is a tricky thing to accomplish as a writer. If the author hints at the solution too much, we spend part of the book feeling angry with the character for being so stinkin' stupid. But if the author doesn't hint at all, the surprise lacks oomph. It feels like there's no way we could have figured it out before the character, and that's oddly frustrating.




All this came to mind because of last week's episode of 30 Rock. (Just to prepare you all, this is the last season of 30 Rock, and I will likely go into mourning at the end of it. Consider yourself warned.)

In the episode, Liz (Tina Fey) has lost the romantic spark in her relationship with her boyfriend Kriss (played by James Marsden, and I'm pretty sure that's how his name is spelled because it's mentioned in an episode...but online everything says Criss.)

She's yelling at him all the time, even when he's trying to do romantic stuff like surprise her by showing up at work. She freaks because he knocks stuff off her desk, which totally messes up her organizational system.

Later, she's overloaded with work, but stops feeling stressed out when she gets to organize and color-code her time on a spreadsheet. And it clicks in her head that this is what's missing in her relationship with Kriss - organization!

(Side note: This was definitely a PG-13 rated episode, so don't automatically go watch it on Hulu...)

Did you catch the seed the writer planted? When Kriss surprised her at work, Liz got mad about it disrupting her organization. But because she gets mad at him for a variety of things right around that time, including him writing a song for her on his guitar, it blends in with what's going on. There's no extra attention drawn to it, which is what tends to create that, "Hey, notice me, because I'll be important later!" sensation that leaves us feeling cheated.

A good way to think of it is like planting a bulb in the soil.

I realize she isn't planing a bulb. But she IS planting. And she's awful cute...
You often plant bulbs 6 months to 9 months before they come up. (I think - I'm not a gardener.) If you're me, you forget you did it until the tulip pops up in the spring. But even if you remember that you planted the tulip bulb, the way it looks is a surprise. "I didn't know it was going to be that shade of pink," you might say.

And with some careful clue planting, you can make that happen for your readers as well. Even if they notice the clue you plant, they won't know how it's going to bloom until your character gets there.

In your stories, do you think you tend to make your solutions too obvious, unguessable, or is it a happy balance?

32 comments:

  1. You explained this so clearly! I'll be referring back to this as I revise!

    I do have some stuff like this in my current story, but it's something I have a difficult time doing. Sometimes I think there are enough hints, but then I realize I'm the only one who would notice them, since I already know what's going to happen. And then other times, it's like I'm smacking my reader in the face with hints that are WAY too obvious.
    I've found that sisters are a great resource when it comes to determining what works and what doesn't work in your story. Mine isn't afraid to tell it like it is, so she often points out when I have a problem with these kinds of things.

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    1. My sisters help me too! I read all my stuff to them, and that helps me alot with noticing if stuff makes sense, or if they are guessing it too quick. You're so right. I have all the details in my head, so if I leave it out in the story, I just already have it, so I dont notice.

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    2. You girls are so lucky to have sisters! Yes, beta readers or critique partners are wonderful for letting you know if your clues are too heavy-handed or just right.

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  2. This is perfect! Just one thing though, what's the best way to hint without giving too much away. I tend to hint here and there and leave all the clues and all that but I also tend to give a it to much away. I guess my question is. How much and how often should we leave these hints and clues? Is there a way we can tell if we are being to obvious?

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    1. Well, it depends on the story and the "bigness" of the reveal, if that makes sense. Because 30 Rock is a 24 minute show, we only needed one hint at the solution. But if you're writing a 100,000 word book and this reveal happens at the climax of your story, it's probably a good idea to drop 2 or 3 hints along the way.

      There are lots of ways to make something too obvious, but the one I see most common are things like, "Boy, Lucy, you sure are good with a sword! If anyone ever stormed our castle, I bet you would be a great surprise weapon." Uh, what do you want to bet that Lucy becomes the surprise weapon?

      Instead if you just show Lucy practicing with her sword a time or two, without calling extra attention to it or the ways that it might come in handy later, your surprise weapon can remain a surprise weapon.

      Helpful?

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    2. Yes quite helpful. My things is, and i'm going to use an example from my WIP, when my main character is in danger the girl he loves is never to be found, that and a weird thing she has on her person when they meet. that's the hints I gave but just before I reveal she is the killer everyone who has read the story can already tell me it's her. It just makes me feel like i'm being obvious. I think I'm going to try a more subtle approach from now on. Thank you for your help :)

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  3. Eh...I think mine are too easy to guess, if they're there at all. I'm working on that, though, and lately I think mine have been getting more subtle. But now I'm worried that they're getting TOO subtle. Sigh! I'll just have to practice. Something I read once said, "You can do anything once you've practiced 200 times."

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    1. I read 10,000 hours :)

      Mine are often too easy to guess. I have to fix in revisions.

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  4. I love how J.K. Rowling would sometimes introduce a new character in HP-give a throwaway reference to them and a few books later, BOOM, they'd arrive as a huge character. The trick is making sure those throwaway foreshadowing references are vague enough that people don't notice what you're doing.Like you said, throwing in a red herring is a good idea!
    I remember one book I read once, where a character ended up being alive and I only considered it for a second before they came back and when they came back, I was like "I knew I should have gone with my gut!" That's all you want to give the reader--a gut instinct that something is wrong.

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    1. Oh, gosh, J.K. is the queen of planting the solution! I wanted to use HP at the Sorcerer's Stone as an example, but it's impossible without giving away the great surprise ending.

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    2. I know! You can totally gasp at the end of her books, and yet totally see how things ended up that way!

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    3. I love J.K. to me she is the queen of writting. I know many may disagree but i'm a huge Harry Potter fan. J.K made my childhood and shes the reason I love writting. Sorry I know it's unrelated to the original comment. Just had to comment because, you know... Harry Potter!

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    4. It's okay, I feel the same. :D

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    5. Haha I agree, J.K. Rowling is a master at this. So cool how everything ties in by the end of the seventh book.

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  5. I try to be very aware of this, but I too rely on my first readers to let me know how I pull it off, LOL. I recently had someone read _Ring of Secrets_ for me who knew nothing about the book, and when she sent me a note saying how I'd totally surprised her with my twist at the end, I quickly followed up with, "But it made sense in retrospect, right??" ;-) A delicate balance for sure, and your bulb analogy is spot on.

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    1. I think you built up that twist really well, and that it's also one that's tricky to pull off.

      There were a few books that came to mind with great twists like that, but I hated to give away a whole book!

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  6. Hmmm, I think I tend to do both. Sometimes I make it too obvious, and have to go back and change it, and other times it is pretty much unguessable...almost like I had no clue so I just wrote something. I'm trying to find a happy medium. Great post! Deffinately got to work on this one.

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  7. I haven't gotten far enough into my WIP to be dropping very many hints yet, but I'll definitely have to keep this in mind when I get to that point. I think that sometimes it can be kind of hard to find a good balance between being completely and totally obvious and being imperceptible.

    Thanks for the great post!

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    1. I agree! I rely on my critique partner to let me know if I've done it well.

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  8. An absolute master at this is Chris Fabry. I get to the end of almost every one of his books and say "no way - never saw that coming" but then think back and see that everything totally led up to it. Dogwood especially. Huge twist you would never guess. I even went back and reread passages because I was just sure characters had said things that counteracted the ending. But no...what they said actually hinted at the ending!!

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    1. PS I should mention that Dogwood and Chris Fabry's other adult books are definitely adult books and deal with adult issues, so proceed with caution if you're young. He has written some YA stuff too, through. I haven't read them so I can't tell you much about them, but I can vouch for his amazingness as an author in general!

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  9. This has already been touched on, but when I saw this article I immediately thought of JK Rowling! She is a wizard at planting important plot points and solutions (<< pun intended). Allison talked about characters, but when I last re-read the series I was most mind-blown by how nearly EVERYTHING Harry and pals learn in class, hear about in passing, etc. ends up being super-important later on. You don't think anything of the description of, say, how to use the Mirror of Erised, or that Harry can talk to snakes, because you think it's just to draw you into the world of Hogwarts.. which it is, but then BAM! Plot point. Mind blown.

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    1. Oh, and two examples I can think of--PLOT- in book 3, McGonagall is teaching about animagi and the BOOM, PLOT POINT IN BOOKS THREE & FOUR.
      For characters, the Lovegoods are mentioned in passing in book four having world cup tickets, and guess who is a character in book 5? ;)

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  10. I tend to surprise myself with my foreshadowing. Most of my *bulbs* I plant on accident, and ta-da! they spring up later in the story tying in with something at the beginning. Lucky me. Less work! :P But it doesn't always happen. I usually fall into the trap of thinking "Agh! My readers won't have a clue!" When really, readers are pretty smart. They sniff out a lot of things really fast.

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    1. Haha, I do the same thing all the time! It always surprises me when I'm editing and find the hints that I didn't know were there.

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  11. Every once in a while something with come out that's really subtle and makes me feel like I'm cleaver. The majority of the time it'd obvious though.

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  12. Thanks so much for this post!I'm not very far into my WIP, but this has given me an idea for how I can change it and make my solution less obvious.

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  13. Thank you for the post!
    I have some moments like this in my book. The only problem I have is that I plant clues and then forget about them - so I'm the one being surprised to find them again, and then I have to remember to follow up on them xD

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  14. Thanks for this post! I've never even *thought* about doing this, although I've noticed all the time how it happens in TV shows. This is probably something I should pay attention to. =)

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  15. I can honestly say I've never even thought of this before but it makes sense. I've read a handful of books lately where I got to the end and thought, "Whoa, I never saw that coming." Sometimes it "works" sometimes it doesn't. This helped me see that a little more. Definitely a question I'll be asking my friends who are reading my WIP.

    Thanks, Stephanie!

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