The Breadcrumb Effect

Fiction writers sometimes employ pernicious secrecy in the telling of their stories

Gretel and Hansel laid their own trail. How’d that go for them?


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.


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.


“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.


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.


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.

Instructor at @GothamWriters, NYC. Ed.-in-Chief of, where fiction is the focus and inspiration is the goal. #Javascotia @PenguinBooks