A trail in need of breadcrumbs

Choose your path and leave a trail of breadcrumbs.

Anyone I’ve talked to about writing has heard this one before. When I write, I lay out a trail of breadcrumbs as I go. When Hansel and Gretel did it, things didn’t work out so well for them, but that was because a bunch of birds were jerks and ate them all. I don’t have birds in my books to worry about while I write (I go back and add them in at the end if I need any), so I find it pretty useful. Breadcrumbs are the bits we go back to pick up!

What are breadcrumbs?

Breadcrumbs are the little bits of flavor dropped into the story along the way. They are details that don’t show up in your elevator pitch, your back cover synopsis, or even your detailed chapter outlines. If you let them, they will occur naturally, with practice. You can use them to humanize your minor characters, to help your readers get a feel for a place without spending paragraphs describing it.

If I introduce you to ‘Rory the Tavernkeeper’, then roll along diving right into narrative and dialogue with him, the impression you’ll have of him will last the length of his time on the page and likely no further. If I say he’s got bad breath and greenish-yellow teeth, you’ll have a better picture of him, but it’s unlikely I’ll ever mention it again.

If I want to leave a few breadcrumbs around our new friend Rory the Tavernkeeper, I might mention the gold pocket-watch he proudly shows everyone he meets. I might have him mention that “you’re the second one to ask about that today” about whatever the topic was. Maybe I can give him a missing hand and a quick explanation of how he lost it.

Why leave them in the first place?

Well, unless your manuscript is laser-focused, as intricately interconnected as a circuit-board, or dull as an eraser, you’re going to need non-essential details to make your world seem alive. If every bit of information you convey is completely plot-essential, odd mentions of mundane things will be jarring; your readers will know that something is up. It would be like those old point-and-click mystery computer games: “because I can move this, it means it’s important.”

People have quirks, habits, knick-knacks, collections, interests and ambitions beyond what your main character is worrying about at the moment, and not all characters ought to be just setting everything aside and forgetting about all else when your hero shows up at their door. Other things are going on, from overheard rumors to street carnivals to illicit business dealings. Including them takes the world you are building and expands it from a tiny bubble around your protagonist that moves with him wherever he goes and turns it into a vibrant, active place that your protagonist inhabits.

What do I do with them?

Here’s the fun part: you go back later and pick them up. What that means is that later on in the story, when you have other instances come up when you’re fleshing out the bits of scenes that you don’t spend weeks or months planning out in advance, you think about what you’ve already left yourself to work with.

For instance, say you had Rory the Tavernkeeper gruffly tell your protagonist that he lost his hand years ago, over a game of cards. Later on, delving into the underworld dealings of a large city, you need to conjure up a gang of thieves. You could have your character notice a gruesome trophy rack of severed hands. One of the thieves gives a knowing glance and informs the hero that those are the hands of men who have cheated them.

What you’ve done is twofold. You’ve taken something from earlier in your story and used it to quickly characterize that entire gang of thieves as more than simple pickpockets and burglars. Even better, you’ve given a hint at a whole separate story: the night that Rory the Hasn’t-Become-a-Tavernkeeper-Yet tried to cheat his way to a quick fortune at cards and lost his hand for his troubles.

You’ve not only made use of internal consistency to give your world believability, but you’ve provided a little bonus for readers who pay close attention. They feel rewarded for having taken note of the little details you worked in and clever for having made the connection. Even readers who don’t pick up that same breadcrumb will still get the effect of internal consistency, that in your world there are folks around who’ll take your hand off if you cross them.

An example from Firehurler

(minor spoiler warning)
Right in Chapter 1, Kyrus is musing about his master, Expert Davin, trying to arrange a theoretical niece of his to be his wife. Kyrus’s musing goes so far as to imagine up a name for the girl: Juliana. At the time it means nothing to the reader, just an example of Kyrus’s active imagination. Later on though, we learn that Brannis was once betrothed to a girl named Juliana. Kyrus wasn’t making the name up, it was half-remembered from his dreams and when he thought of an arranged bride, that was the name that came to mind.

A caution against overuse

Naturally you can take things to extremes. You could make a list of every detail you mention and painstakingly reference them all later in your book. This is probably worse than the Zork-esque “if you can take it, you need it” approach, where you only mention things essential to the plot. Instead you’ll end up with a knotted mass of interconnected events unrelated to the main plot. If you can pull it off successfully, you may be some sort of master storyteller. More likely, it means you are the sort of person who has a house in Skyrim with one of ever book in the game neatly lined up on two dozen bookshelves.

These are breadcrumbs, not gold coins. Leave a few for the birds to pick up!