Fiction Writing: The Art of Dropping Breadcrumbs

I’ve hit that awkward stage.

I’m talking about my new book. (In life, fortunately, I’m feeling more comfortable with myself every day.) The beginning is pretty well set, and I know how the story will end even if I don’t have all the details fully fleshed out quite yet. The big issues are established, and a few that looked intriguing in the beginning turned out to be just confusing diversions, so they’ve been dropped. Hopefully the result is a plot line that seems quite inevitable.

pitcher pond: there's a lot we don't see below the surface

In every great story, there’s a lot we don’t see going on below the surface.

You’d think it would all be easy sailing at this point, but here’s why instead this is the awkward part: now I have to word-paint all those scenes to life, so you can see them as clearly as I do. And then I have to drop just enough breadcrumb hints along the way to make that ending seem like the only logical conclusion. It’s exhausting. Especially since before I can carefully place all those breadcrumbs on the page, I have to first bake the loaf—and then crumble it into tiny, seemingly unrelated, individual pieces.

I’m overworking the bread metaphor here, so let me give you a specific example. A few blogs ago I introduced you to Lloyd, the book’s bad guy—who I still don’t like. But I do have a little more sympathy for him these days. Since writing that blog, I’ve learned more about a key childhood incident that helped turn him into such a meanie.

Since Lloyd grew up long before the book begins, what matters from his past has to be dropped into the present without making it too obvious or odious. It’s like the difference between a fantastic historical novel and a straight dry list of historical facts; to keep you reading, the key bits of information need to be hidden within the story’s natural flow. Hence the breadcrumb approach: drop a little bit here, and then add a little more there, a few chapters later. Each character develops as the book does, drawing us further into the story—until eventually, we find our way to the perfect ending.

Of course it’s not just Lloyd who has a past that matters—all the adult characters, even the minor ones, are products of their upbringing in one way or another. So first I have to “learn” what each of their pasts looked like. Then I have to figure out what’s really relevant to this particular story. And last but not least, I have to convey those few key details in the least obvious way possible. Readers don’t need to be told directly that Declan, my main character, is left-handed, but as the author I must remember—so his gestures stay consistent from one chapter to the next.

(Meanwhile, I’m still trying to figure out where that scar on Dec’s left temple came from.)

This is my fourth book, so I can see the pattern now—and that makes it slightly easier to work through this awkward stage. This is where fiction writing becomes work rather than pure play; where the rubber hits the road, where the tough get going.

Since I’m overdoing the metaphors again, I’ll let you get back to your day. Thanks for reading, and if you have any suggestions for how a well-coordinated guy would come to have a short deep scar on his left temple, please let me know.

13 Replies to “Fiction Writing: The Art of Dropping Breadcrumbs”

  1. Hi Carol!
    I recently purchased all your previous works and loved them – especially the cheddar cheese with the apple pie in Oliver’s Surprise. That tidbit reminds me so much of my Dad’s “an apple pie wihout cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze” with every slice I’ve ever served him. As for the scar, a couple years ago at age 6, my oldest crashed his forehead into the corner of a cabinet. He needed about 10 stitches and has a scar. All from good, hard play. Maybe a childhood accident might work for your character? Happy writing, love the blog.

    Cheers, Karen Disch

    1. Karen, thanks for the comment. I’d never heard the “cheese/squeeze” quote before, but it’s perfect! Also thanks for the childhood accident thought. I was leaning more toward a nautical accident, but good hard kids’ play might fit in even better.

    1. Dave, of course I thought of the boom but couldn’t figure out how it would leave a deep small scar (without doing any long term damage). Maybe a bail or some other piece of hardware? Anyway thanks for the suggestion!

  2. Have you thought about giving fiction writing seminars locally–libraries, high schools, colleges (though they are overrun with “creative writing” teachers); you have really meaningful experience to offer and have a ready audience. As an example, I did some seminars for hs faculty when I was in the business.

  3. How about the scar that Siobhan has had for about 25 yrs above her left eyebrow. Chris thought it was a good idea to have her pitch the basketball to him so he could hit it with this old golf club.
    No sooner had the ball been pitched then the iron foot of the club came soaring off through the air straight for Siobhan’s eye-luckily missing the eye but gashing above the left eye and it required about 7-10 stitches.

  4. that scar on Dec’s left temple + well-coordinated guy

    Could it have come from some unavoidable sudden distraction; rogue wave or the girl from Ipanema. You get the idea.

  5. It’s so much fun fleshing out the details of each character…it’s funny how we add some bit of description that seems to ‘look right’ on them, only to find out that there is a whole story–perhaps even character-altering information–contained in that tiny detail. It’s part of the fun of allowing ourselves to write by the seat of our pants during those middle phases of constructing a story.
    And since you asked about the scar, [you know how little I really know on this subject], what about a stray line of some sort–maybe a halyard–that lets go during a squall and whips across his brow? I also like the idea of a distraction.

    1. Bridget, thanks for the comment. And yes, it is fun “learning” about our characters. Like getting to know friends. And we seem to have as much influence over their behavior as real-life people. 🙂

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