This week I have been considering – no, make that marvelling at – writer’s clues we novelists leave sprinkled about our stories. The clue is always a key to unlock some crucial element of plot or character when it becomes important. In other words, later. A breath from the future.
Some are for the readers, especially if we’re writing some sort of whodunnit, whether the crime is murder or stealing a pig.
But some are for ourselves. And some come as a complete surprise to us when we get to the crucial moment.
Writer’s Clues for the Reader
It is a powerfully authoritarian assembly chamber. One quailed as one entered. Well, I did, anyway.
The production makes a great point about the might of the law. And this was absolutely the perfect venue for it. But the play itself, taken from a short story, is about solving a murder mystery as you’d expect.
It’s been filmed twice. In 1957 was it directed by Billy Wilder and starred Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich. The movie, Wilder and Laughton were all nominated for Academy Awards. In 1982 it was filmed for television with Ralph Richardson and Diana Riggs in the Laughton and Dietrich roles, plus a host of other starry names of the times – and a young Beau Bridges.
In the current staging, the dramatic, not to say melodramatic, events didn’t really get going properly until the second act. There’s a lot of exposition in the early dialogue. And in that exposition there is a Writer’s Clue.
Writer’s Clues the Readers Miss
I reminded him of the conversations in which the character was mentioned. He conceded. But it clearly didn’t have the impact that Christie or her playwright collaborator would have liked.
Among its many virtues, it has an absolutely fabulous clue which you note but don’t see the significance of until the end.
Then the events are explained that actually led to the murder. And the explanation is a fact you already know. You – well, I – just didn’t complete the jigsaw. Perfect!
And I managed both Christie and Ivar without spoilers! Yay!
Writer’s Clues to Self
When the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones died in 2011, she left an unfinished manuscript, The Islands of Chaldea. Eventually, her younger sister, Ursula Jones, completed it. Her Afterword on the process is both inspiring and illuminating about her sister’s writing process. (Read it. It’s terrific – and spine chilling – and heartbreaking.) About the stories that Diana would tell her younger siblings when they were children, she writes:
It filled a series of exercise books, and she would read the newest section to us in bed at night. When she suddenly stopped reading we would wail, “Go on, go on. What happens next?” and she’d say, “Don’t you understand? I haven’t written any more yet.”
And that’s how Diana Wynne Jones carried on through 45 years of wonderful magical adventure stories that make you think, make you weep, make you want to go on great expeditions and be brave. Her sister again: “She left no notes: she never made any. Her books always came straight out of her extraordinary mind onto the page and she never discussed her work while it was in progress.”
An archetypal pantser then. But no notes? No notes at all? Not just a pantser, a major risk taker, I’d say.
Ursula Jones, a children’s writer herself and an actress, says she scoured the text for those writer’s clues and found nothing. For months. And, just when she was starting to despair, she found one of DIana’s clues, early on in the manuscript.
My Own Writer’s Clues
I’ve always been a pantser. I hear my characters, usually at a moment somewhere close to the start of my, their, story. And at that moment I know exactly as much as they do about what they are going to do and what difficulties they are going to encounter. Zilch.
Into the woods we go, equally clueless.
But I know them. And sometimes I know stuff I don’t know I know.
Take the case of The Accidental Mistress. It’s the second in a trilogy about three girls in the same family. I knew the girls intimately. So I steamed ahead after Book 1. But oh, the hero…
So I did what I’d tell anyone else to do. I sat down and started reading it aloud. And, there it was, the Writer’s Clue to Writer. On page one. Page One.
My hero, Dom, is an explorer. He’s about to go to the Arctic and he’s lost 10% of his funding. My heroine works in a Public Relations Company. Her boss offers to help. And Dom has gone into the office for a strategy meeting and is sitting at the table doodling impatiently.
Clearly Dom doesn’t feel comfortable in an office. Doesn’t take notes. Doesn’t read the stuff they’ve given him. Why?
Dom is dyslexic!
And there he was. There he had been from the very first moment I’d started writing the book. And my conscious mind – the mind that was counting words and ticking off key milestones in the plot and looking at deadlines [hollow laughter] – blithely went on worrying that my hero wasn’t there yet.
The blasted kitten had more sense than I did.
In Search of your Writer’s Clues
So I have enormous sympathy with Ursula Jones, trying to identify, let alone decipher, the clues left by somebody else. Because it is something that happens below the level of analysis and reason. It comes with dreams, tingles at the back of the neck and, oh heavens, doubt.
But writer, if you’re writing a book and get stuck in the middle, read it aloud. Those clues will be there. You have to dive in and let the book talk to you. And it will. Eventually.