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...|
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?