Writer’s Clues

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

clue, County Hall Assembly ChamberThis week I went to see a terrific presentation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. It was staged in the old Council Chamber of the Greater London Council at the former County Hall.

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

blue question marksI am sure it must be there in the story. But my companion did not pick it up from the stage performance. “I don’t understand. Where did that [character] come from?” he demanded afterwards, irritated.

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.

Evil Things, Katje Ivar, CluesBy contrast I have raved elsewhere on this blog about Evil Things by Katje Ivar.

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

writing energy magic, book, bluebell woodI’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.

Doodling? WTF? Is he totally irresponsible? He should be taking notes. Hell’s teeth, he should be handing out his own brief, insisting the PR people read it. What’s going on here?

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!

writer's cat - kitten at computerAnd 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.

Good luck

Sophie Weston AuthorSophie

14 thoughts on “Writer’s Clues

  1. Jan Jones

    Absolutely agree with all this! The writer’s brain is spookily prescient. In ‘A Question of Thyme’ I made up a rhyme very early on in the book referring to a sort of legendary treasure. The rhyme felt right and had the right shape and rhythm, but I hadn’t the faintest idea what it meant. I went on writing the book and unknowingly put in all the right things and WHAM! The meaning of the rhyme hit me almost at the same time as it hit the heroine. (It was a great relief to both of us.) I didn’t have to change a thing.

    Re ‘The Islands of Chaldea’, I devoured that as soon as it came out and read Ursula’s account of the process. I do believe I know at what point she took over the writing and the clue she found that enabled her to finish the book as DWJ intended.

  2. Sophie Post author

    Your rhyme experience is very weird, Jan. Never had anything that precise myself. Though I have found that I know more about my characters and their doings that I’d ever realised.

    Fascinating that you think you know which clue Ursula Jones found and ran with. We must speak about it when next we meet. Keep it OUR secret?

    There are lots of people saying they can’t tell. And I must say, the book feels wonderfully seamless. And weren’t there more pieces left unfinished too? Salivating at the thought, here.

  3. lesley2cats

    Wish I’d seen that production of Witness. Fabulous setting. Naturally, I agree with all of this, especially as I write whodunnits. And because I write a series, sometimes the clues to self in particular come from a previous book. Complicated, isn’t it?

  4. Elizabeth Bailey

    Agree also. Writing whodunnits, the writer’s clues that hit me are usually whodunnit. I never know when I start. I know suspects but have to write on and wait for the clue that tells ME who the murderer is as well as my sleuths heroine. It seems to work.

    1. Sophie Post author

      That’s brilliant, Liz. You give me hope that I might, one day, achieve my ambition of completing a whodunnit.

  5. Sarah Mallory

    Thank you, Sophie – you are spot on with how we write things we don’t know we know (if that makes sense). I am a pantser, too, but the idea of no notes at all is too scary, even for me.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh, me too, Sarah. Though I make more notes as I go along – and an awful lot of them have question marks – than I ever do before I start.

  6. Liz Fielding

    Great blog, Sophie. I do find myself suddenly confronted with a clue as to why a character is behaving in a certain way that goes right back to the something written weeks before. It is weird, but wonderful.

    1. Joanna

      I do so agree, Liz. And it goes to prove, as Sophie implies in her blog, that there’s more to writing a good story than some of the tick-box “how-to” manuals would have aspiring writers believe.

      1. Sophie Post author

        I’ve got all sorts of stuff from manuals which have helped lots, especially with editing. But I admit that that they have sometimes made me forget to Read The Damn Book properly and see what pointers I’ve already got in there, Joanna. Kick me the next time you see me doing it!

        Weird but wonderful is just about right, Liz.

        1. Joanna

          I’ve got lots of stuff from manuals and workshops, too, Sophie. But there’s a bit of elusive magic in writing that I’ve never been able to describe properly. Or pin down. Maybe if I could, it would be gone?

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