The Breadcrumb Effect
Fiction writers sometimes employ pernicious secrecy in the telling of their stories
A common pitfall for the beginning fiction writer is The Breadcrumb Effect. This is where the author conceives of a plot — a murder, a jealous lover, a stilted artist — and goes about relating things in such a way as if daring his reader to surmise what exactly is happening.
What is the nature of the lover’s jealousy? What has made the artist stilted? Readers can’t say.
Usually murders are sufficiently transparent (barring Whodunnits), but not always. In workshops, I’ve been in a student’s narrative rowboat crossing an inlet under moonlight, unaware (because I was not told) that the gal in the gunnels is pulseless. I’ve ridden shotgun with a character driving away from a funeral, with no clue as to how the character feels about the deceased, about facing the remainder of her life without his company, or all that came before. The writing was strictly unadorned and factual. But only so much can be said by a grain silo. This was not bad writing; it just employed a confounding and pernicious secrecy.
This tactic is like paying rent by slipping into the landlord’s back yard and putting the check in the barbecue. When you do that, the landlord calls up asking for his money, and the payee feels accused of being a deadbeat. In workshops the landlord is the reader, and feels affronted. The writer is shocked that the cracked lid didn’t give it away. It’s not a good situation for either party.
Almost every writer has good intentions, I find, so what are the Breadcrumb writer’s intentions and where do they go wrong? I think it’s the case that a writer sometimes feels like a god, and rightly so. But the Breadcrumb writer wrongly thinks they ought to create a world, then vanish, leaving readers awed about the mystery of their creation — just as awed as we are about our own maker (if you believe there is one). How did she do it? What does it all mean? They want to be like a clever bandit who leaves clues behind that attest to their mastery.
But except for Inspect Hercule Poirot, people are generally more annoyed than awed by having to puzzle things out. The result is not a story but something to be solved. Readers want the truth and a clear view of it. A puzzle is design concealed; but a good story provides some truth revealed.
Sometimes the BW (Breadcrumb Writer) employs their tactics intending on a kind of sophistication. A heavily peppered trail, BW thinks, crumbs mere steps apart, insults the seeker’s intelligence! Much better to spread them wide, like the expansiveness of their ideas (they say, wringing their hands menacingly). What they fear is that the construction will appear simplistic, and they’ll be taken for a plebian. A large part of their conception of artistry is gaining a position of power. But when writing a good story, you yield power to your reader, your characters and that most high-minded abstraction, truth.
It’s selfish to prioritize authorship over the experience of the reader. For the BW, though, it’s too late, though, and once caught up in manipulation, they keep the game going. After all, it’s a virtue to be true to one’s self. To be artistically committed. It’s now about integrity, and this sets up for all kinds of annoyances, all of which at one time I have committed.
Authors must be generous, patient, and more explicit than it is their instinct to be. An author must be like the local pedestrian who is stopped and asked for directions. The local cannot be obfuscatory in this situation. He must be very plain. “Friend, do you know where you are? Let me tell you.” This is not a time for style, for flare, but explicitness, which is allowed in art after all. The writer who obscures meaning and thinks they’re doing their reader a favor forgets the anxiety of uncertain meandering, like when a shopper labors to find a specialty store in an overlarge mall. He forgets that even for adults being lost is scary; and he does not foresee that readers will flee the course entirely if they feel they’ve been abandoned, as they often do with so few breadcrumbs in sight.
Where does this secretive impulse, which results in a kind of cruelty, come from? It comes, I think, through a misguided effort to recreate the enjoyments of perceptive reading. Avid readers know what they enjoy from the other side of the page. They enjoy participating in the story. They enjoy actively discerning. They enjoy the pleasure of anticipation, and the rewards of discovery. And, yes, some of this involves piecing things together. So the BW tries for these effects, doling out glimpses of motivation in a character, selective facts mixed in among many glancing or distorted perceptions.
It’s a mistake to think that all your thematic intentions are evident in the first declarative sentence you write. And you must not fear that by handing over the contents of the story, showing his character’s truest feelings, you’ll lose your greatest asset and have nothing left with which to entice.
“But plot,” I hear you say. Thoughtful calculation in plotting is certainly desirable, and selectivity, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, scene by scene, is a must. But there is a difference between elements of fiction craft — which bits to put in dialogue, whether to show or tell, finding the apt metaphor — and being crafty. Being crafty is for foxes and poker players. A slippery writer is an aggravating writer, and a story than can’t be grasped is as useful as a greasy balloon. What seems to the BW as artfully describing the contours of a world (“But I’m going for subtlety!”) is in fact more akin to the treatment of some children by their elder siblings, when the television remote is held high above the younger’s head, out of reach. Jump and reach and plead as his victim may, he never gives up the prize — that would signal defeat. In short time, someone is crying in anger and leaving the room. The elder (the writer in this exasperating metaphor) is left holding the thing, which he doesn’t really want that much anymore.
High on the list of things an author ought not to do to a reader is to create this kind of frustration.
Breadcrumbing is a part of a broader phenomenon. In general, beginning writers believe that their prose packs more power than it does. The beginning writer makes Joan say “No” and thinks Joan’s adamancy and anger is evident, even forceful. “It was late, and Roy couldn’t sleep,” one student of mine wrote, convinced that the fullness of his character’s restlessness, the depth of his worry, was dripping from the page.
The beginning writer puts a character in a car on a road after a funeral and trusts that a roadside grain silo conveys grief, because when he last grieved he saw such a grain silo; or he might not be drawing from real life, but inventing the silos from what he knows of the world, believing that their stark isolation can convey his intending feeling. Certainly a silo can deliver grief, just as certainly as a single “No!” can floor us, crush us, in the right circumstance; just as certainly as sleepless moments can conjure the darkest midnight despair. But it’s in the delivery, and what’s usually lacking in the beginner’s delivery are the words themselves. This largely comes from a kind of timidity, from the misperception that the art of writing lies in subtlety and withholding.
Sometimes we read sublime works and see — -know, hear, smell — -a world beyond the words themselves; this affect is never achieved by slightness.
Context is important. I saw a play one in which to show anger, one actor yelled some lines. No, he screamed them like an enraged, steroidal psychotic. His face turned red as a summer strawberry, and his jugular swelled to the size of garden hose. If he’d done that in a café or at a bus stop, he’d have been arrested. But we, the audience, didn’t think he was insane. We were in a theater, where drama belongs, and it takes a broad gesture, a powerful act, to convey a powerful emotion. Also it takes a loud voice to reach the balcony. The scream was appropriate to the medium and the venue. Similarly, if you’ve ever been around a rock band practicing, you know how damn loud it is. The snare drum, even unamplified, makes you wince. Yet in stadiums all over the world (pre-pandemic) drummers pound the skins, even amplified through speakers as big as busses.
How does this pertain to writing? When you have heartache, you can probably make it clear to your best friend Myron over coffee in a few words, and Myron will clutch your hand consolingly, right there with your pain. The medium here is speech and presence, and the context is one of a long friendship. On the page, however, where the listener doesn’t know you or your history, and cannot see your face or hear your voice, you must start with the basics, you must be precise and thorough, and elaborate by recounting the nature of all that transpired to get you to heartache. Imagery, dialogue, metaphor. And then probably reiterate it all with dramatically loud gestures. Which is not to say you always have to be long-winded or over-the-top or redundant. But you must be honest and go to lengths to depict the things that in real life get implied by tears and anguished eyes and filled in by your best friend’s memory and knowledge of the romance that just ended. This is what makes writing an art form. Talking to your friend at a café is not an art form. It’s life.
Remember in high school when everyone said their life was like a movie?
Ever met someone who says, “You’re a writer? Oh, man, I should write a book. My life!”
Your experiences may seem storied, and they are to you; but they are not storied, epic, moving, or much else until you make them so to the first-time reader, who assumes nothing, brings no foreknowledge, and gives you no benefits from any of his doubts, which are copious. This person must be convinced. So convince them. Your only instrument is words; use them generously. This goes the same for stories you make up which have nothing to do (ostensibly) with yourself.
Have you ever been invited to a party, and the host hasn’t turned on the air conditioning, didn’t put out chairs, offers carrots but no dip, and the ice maker is broken? Your story or novel is the party: be a good host from top to bottom. Greet your guests at the door with a smile, take their coats, actually say, “Come in, come in, glad you could make it.” Don’t make them assume they are welcome — make them feel welcome. This involves a degree of simplicity and directness which isn’t necessarily sophisticated, but is the groundwork for a sophisticated effect. Have the lemonade chilled, the pretzel bowl brimming and several activities planned. There will be no mistaking that you’re throwing a party. Yes, it’s effort, and it’s all your effort, and it might not be repaid in the least but for cosmically. Do it because your guests have been to other good parties, and this is what they expect. It won’t feel extravagant to them; it’ll just be what’s expected. If they are worthy guests, they’ll be grateful.
I would even take it one further and say that as an author you need to be not only accommodating and gracious, but generous to the point of discomfort, fawning to the point of inconvenience. Your reader’s apartment just burned down on a winter night, and you are the Salvation Army. Hand them that blanket, console them with words, guide them by a shoulder to the shelter. Ask them what they need three or four times. It will seem an extraordinary effort to you, a great sacrifice, it’ll really put you out, and they will be just comforted enough to forget their worries. Which is what most of us want from a good book, not a hunt through the woods, or a trying to fetch loose change from between the parking brake and the seat, which almost always ends with a scraped knuckle, drawn blood, and curses.