Paying attention to clues

[— Karen Myers —]

Back in the 1990s, I was doing tech consulting in downtown Chicago. My client was located in the Loop, in one of the older tall buildings that had been retrofitted for data centers in the basement (before that service was typically outsourced **). As techies will do, we traded war stories, trying to establish our tech status creds so that he could be comfortable buying services from my firm. In the process, he told me a story that has always stuck with me.

He reminded me that there had been a local flood in 1992. Repair work on a bridge spanning the Chicago River damaged the wall of an abandoned and disused utility tunnel beneath the river. The resulting breach flooded basements and facilities throughout the Chicago Loop with an estimated 250 million US gallons of water. The remediation lasted for weeks, and cost about $2 billion in 1992 dollars, equivalent to $3.86 billion in 2021. The legal battles lasted for several years, and disagreement over who was at fault persists to this day.

Now, I had heard about this in NYC when it happened and I shook my head in sympathy. But he hadn’t played his trump card yet. You see, when the breach first occurred and water started to flood into the buildings, it was quite a while before anyone knew that the Chicago River itself had been breached, and so they were all wasting their time trying to locate some broken pipe to be fixed, somewhere in the area.

My client was sent down to the basement of his company’s building to see how bad the flooding was. He told me, “I realized we had a different kind of problem when I saw the fish.”

That was a terrific punchline. It set me to thinking about clues, and what we do with them when we tell stories.


Our Readers need clues of course, about the world in the book, the relationships between the characters, the motivations and limitations of the individuals, and so forth. We don’t want to just tell them these things — how tedious that would be. We want the clues to arise organically from bits and pieces of story as the readers make their way through the book. One character’s explicit realization in-story may be used to reveal to the reader the second-hand clues another character leaves about the reasons for his behavior, providing a sort of meta-clue to the reader who, ideally, doesn’t notice the technique by which his understanding grows.

The reader’s privileged view of events through indirect clues isn’t the same thing as foreshadowing, though they both serve to raise speculation about what’s going to happen, and why. Unlike the characters, the readers have all the clues in the story, though they may not know how to interpret them (until we make things clear).

Now, just because we authors have all the clues in our head and have carefully, thriftfully, cunningly, sprinkled them somewhere in the story doesn’t mean that the reader has noticed them. In some genres, like Mystery, the reader is on the alert for clues (true or misleading) that are absolutely necessary to make sense of the plot (and mysteries are generally only one novel long). But in other genres, clues may need reinforcement. For example, if our character has some peculiarity (he always wears a hat), well maybe that’s just his pleasure, or maybe the hat is a clue to some trauma in his past which will affect his story later on. Either way, because the hat-thing was repeated, the reader is prepared for it to possibly grow into an actual plot issue without it ruining the element of surprise.

On the other hand, when you drop a hint in book one of an SFF series and then treat it as if it were a clue for a plot reveal several books later, that’s going to be ineffectual, and the reader is likely to feel blindsided by an arbitrary plot. The clue needs to either be a long-running element, occasionally referred to, or (re-)introduced ab novo, in the book where it will serve as part of a reveal, even if it has been referred to in an earlier book. It’s unreasonable to expect a reader to remember all the details about a book read possibly years ago in a current series entry, without local reinforcement.

Our Characters also need clues to drive their own thoughts and actions. They are active players on the stage, and they need to understand the motives, history, and limitations of the other characters as well as themselves (or fail to). The world itself may be an active player, providing clues to disasters.

Much of the structure and action in the story hinges on clues that set up tension, spur to action, reveal hidden causes, and just help the characters (and the readers) keep up with what’s going on. The primary character, and many of the others, are on a voyage of discovery, and clues for that journey are essential.

The Authors, of course, are the ones responsible for the third leg of this tripod. You might think we have all the answers, but for many (most?) of us, we’re discovering the plot and its detailed bits and pieces as we go along. We may know some of the clues we want to use from the start, but new instances will keep occurring to us as the writing proceeds. The writing process itself gives us clues about how to construct the story, the things that would work best, the items that can be artfully referenced before hiding themselves from the plot until needed.

We can pretend omniscience all we like, but (if we’re smart about it) we can let the story go where it wants to go when inspiration hits. Maybe we’ve just recalled something from an earlier book which might have been random at the time, but is now primed to be important in the current one. We can always sprinkle needed clues into the current story or just quietly drop another version of the older story’s clue into the current one, as reinforcement.

What sort of clues have been important to you (in real life or as authors) or to your characters or readers?


** On 9/11, the Port Authority of NY & NJ had its data center in the basement of one of the World Trade buildings, and the first my Annapolis-based company heard of the plane strike was when all our alarms went off and we began to start working the technical problem for the data center being offline. And then someone turned on a television…

Technically speaking, that data center outage was our first clue about a larger event.

13 thoughts on “Paying attention to clues

  1. I’m not good at subtle clues in my writing (yet?), but I thought Dave Freer did a brilliant job of clue planting in his mystery story, Joy Cometh with the Mourning. The first time I got to the reveal I thought he had cheated so I went back through. I think he mentioned the important clue ten times and I missed it completely every single time. But oh boy, it was there! Lovely book and a masterclass in clue planting.

    With respect to tech stories my husband worked on “diversity” twenty years ago when it meant having at least two pathways for every bit of digital data to travel on. He spent a long time tracing out how his company’s data was traveling and discovered things like, paths bought from two different companies but they used the servers in the same basement of the same building – not diverse. My favorite was when he discovered that some data was traveling on two different cables in the same overall underground conduit (not diverse). He and lots of others discovered this when a worker on said conduit, somewhere out west, dug it up and laid it on the nearby train tracks to keep it away from his problem whatever that was, and, yup, a train went by.

    1. I think the whole “clue reinforcement” requirement for Readers is how some sorts of controversies arise.

      For example, I missed any Bujold clues in her first 14 books of Vorkosigan, so when the bisexual reveal occurred in Book 15 I felt blindsided. I think reinforcement was insufficient there, and god knows a lot of other folks were surprised as well (c.f., the endless recent comment section elsewhere in the Hoyt universe — which we should not duplicate here…)

      As Authors we are sometimes too blind about this. After all, we remember planting clues, and it’s up to the Readers to pay attention (as if we ourselves never read quickly or skimmed in someone else’s book).

      1. In Shards of Honor, one of Aral’s ex-lovers was the one who captured Cordelia. It was brought up in Barrayar, but that was about it, as far as I can recall. Cordelia’s take was he was attracted to soldiers so she presented a neat solution to his problem. And once they were married, as she put it, his orientation was monogamous.

        Now I have not read the Red Queen yet, so not familiar with what all happened there.

        I’ll admit, I kind of wound down on the series after Cryoburn.

        1. She broke the character and the relationship in Gentleman Jole. Seriously, that book was… it kept doing all sorts of setup that went nowhere, retconned and broke the prior characters, and the resolution wasn’t even satisfying. 0/10, TBAR, do not recommend.

          Which is why, in my head cannon, the series ends with Cryoburn, and Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is a kind of grace note, almost an epilogue, in which Ivan Finally Gets The Girl.

          As for noticing it… I noticed it from the first time I read it, and it made Aral’s fight all the more poignant, because he wasn’t just doing his duty, he was dealing with people that he loved and hated for very personal reasons.

          That, and the fact that he found a partner who didn’t care that he was bisexual, and just accepted that he was faithful to only them. The first time I read that line, “He was. Now he’s monogamous.” I knew I wanted to find a partner like that. Took me years, but I did!

  2. ..I’m afraid that I don’t follow how you’re splitting clues out from foreshadowing. After all, what is foreshadowing if not the sprinkling of knowledge for the reader, not the characters so that by the time the characters figure it out, the reader doesn’t feel blindsided?

    1. For me, Foreshadowing is a subset of Clues. Foreshadowing is mostly about an upcoming event, where clues can be about static things (personalities, history, private thoughts, deeper information) as well as warnings-of-action. I’m referring to the larger category.

      1. Ah! I split that into either layering the characters world – which doesn’t feel like feeding them clues so much as letting them see more and deeper aspects, like adding shading and rimlighting to a figure to make it more 3D – or foreshadowing, which covers all further plot development, like the foreshocks before an earthquake.

        Not having the same categorizations makes for confusion in terms to define those categorizations!

    2. Foreshadowing is the subset of clues that let the reader anticipate what will happen.

      If, while setting the scene by introducing characters looking for a broken pipe, one grouses about the scale of the flood, and how it’s a big pipe or a big number of them, and the fish introduces the inciting incident, we have already been alerted to the problem.

      It helps keep you awake.

  3. For a while, I could use music as a clue. If the characters stopped and listened to something, it was a Hint (unless it was to make faces and gag and mutter about who-thought-that-was-a-good-idea-please-make-it-stop). I can’t use that as much anymore. Clues are not as clear as foreshadowing, although there’s overlap. I try to highlight something that will be foreshadowing. Clues are less important, and get sprinkled into the story in passing.

    For the WIP, I have a certain type of authority mentioned several times before he actually appears, so readers will know “oh dear, one of Those is coming.” What the conflict will be, and how it gets resolved, is in the clues, but also in the main story.

  4. One of the nice things about having so much written before publishing it is that I’m able to go back and add in any extra clues that will prevent the blindsiding of readers. Sometimes things work out and I’ll have already given myself clues as to where the story was going, but occasionally I do find myself needing to add something (or alter it) to keep the continuity tight and clue in an attentive reader that something’s coming.

  5. One of the nice things about having so much written before publishing it is that I’m able to go back and add in any extra clues that will prevent the blindsiding of readers. Sometimes things work out and I’ll have already given myself clues as to where the story was going, but occasionally I do find myself needing to add something (or alter it) to keep the continuity tight and clue in an attentive reader that something’s coming.

    1. Yeah, I went through that with my second series, Ancestors of Jaiya. (Partly because I wrote them extremely out of order). Going back to sew them together more tightly was one of the more fun moments. 🙂

  6. In my current series I have a pair of antagonistic characters who should be on the same side. The first book introduced the tension. The second cemented it as it turned to hate on one person’s part, and then I made sure to mention it in 3 and show it again in 4. It didn’t come up in 5, but I’m hoping that I revived it early enough in 6, the WIP, that anyone can see what’s coming.

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