[— 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.