Planting Things in a Story

On numerous occasions, I have had to go back to my story and insert plot elements or objects into the beginning so that the end and middle would work better and make more sense.

For instance, I’ll have a particular object that turns up out of the blue at the end of the story. How did it get there? What’s its significance? Then I’ll have to “plant” it earlier on in the beginning of the story so that it makes sense to include it in the end – it won’t seem so randomly placed.

“Planting” things smooths the plot and ties everything together. It’s especially good for creating subplots. Sometimes, planting an object or plot device can add an entirely new plotline that can bring depth to the story.

I’ve noticed the “planting” technique in books I’ve read. At the beginning of the book, there’s a seemingly pointless or insignificant object that suddenly takes on a lot of meaning in later chapters. It makes me think that the book has come full circle when the objects from the beginning are given significance and meaning. Everything ties together better and I admire authors who can do that well.

Symbolism works that way, too. Putting a symbol at the beginning can be hard if you draw too much attention to it; that way the reader knows it’s a symbol – that’s almost like a spoiler and can give away the ending of the book. Don’t draw too much attention to your symbols. That way, when they become important in the end, it’s more of an “ah-ha” moment than it would be if the reader had guessed the symbol’s true importance all along. I’d think it would make the book more of a satisfying read.

Do you ever go back and plant symbols/objects/plot devices in your stories?

21 thoughts on “Planting Things in a Story

  1. When I was plotting I ran into trouble with how my characters got to where they are. I had to start planting scenes of backstories so it was less convenient and there were fewer plot holes. It also allowed me to expand on personalities.

    Other than that I have not needed to plant random objects so far.

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    1. I do that, too. That’s why going over the draft a few times really helps you spot things that you might have missed the first time – and allows you to make them better.

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  2. I sometimes do go back to add something that’s important for the story later. It often is already there, but needs to be strengthened or envisioned in a different way.

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  3. I’ve had to before.

    Usually, I try to hash out any character/plot items while I’m developing the characters and the story, so I won’t have to go back, but of course; something always pops up unexpectedly, lol.

    I think it’s unavoidable really. If you allow your story and characters to grow and change while you’re writing, new things always pop up.

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  4. In his book, “On Writing”, Stephen King admits that much of the foreshadowing that occurs in his chilling books comes in as an afterthought. The way he says it, it (paraphrased) is that he finishes the story first, then goes back and adds those elements which foreshadow the future, or the ending of the story.

    Learning this I felt much less stupid, becuase I often had to do the same thing. I’d always thought that a good writer had all the clues and hooks up and ready for the first draft pass.

    What a relief.

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    1. That is an excellent book. I also thought that authors knew exactly where to put stuff and what to do right in the first draft. But now I know that all the “perfection” of a finished story is about years and years of work.

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  5. Good post. I am certainly doing some foreshadowing in my NaNo project currently, although I’m not sure if it counts as post-hoc planting because I knew pretty much where it was going to end when I started writing. So I already had a rough idea of what things needed to be brought up and when. We will see how this works out, though, as I’ve never done it like this before.

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  6. I try not to do this because I do feel like it can be obvious if done carelessly, but it’s definitely necessary much of the time. It’s not like we have every little detail saved in our brains for the perfect moment to use!

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  7. Hi Maggie, I always enjoy reading your posts. As a visual artist, when reading your prompts on techinque, style etc, I try to see your questioning from a visual artist’s point of view. In reference to this post, I often go back to a piece or a series that I am developing and plant new symbolic images into a work to convey the subject matter more clearly or lead the viewer to the next piece. I like the progression of one piece to another in a series, and the way to tie it all together is to “plant” sequences.

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    1. “Planting” things is a good way of tying everything together. I’m glad this post could inspire you in your art.

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  8. Well, when you’re writing mystery stories, you definitely have to plant your clues and motives and so on. Sometimes I plant things without knowing exactly what they will grow into (for example: I describe a hallway, and I put an extra door, not knowing what it will lead to, but knowing that I will probably want one more door in that hallway later in the story).

    I post as I write, so I can’t go back and plant anything major after the fact, so I need to think ahead where I can, even if I don’t see the end very clearly.

    Only once have I ever had to go back and change anything in a mystery story. I had to make an adjustment because a timeline of events didn’t work (if several separate actions are going to be set in motion by a single event — a gunshot that several people hear, for example — they all have to plausibly take the same amount of time if the people are going to end up in the same place at the end).

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    1. That gave me a good idea for another post – how it’s sometimes hard to get the timing/timeline of events right in the story so everything makes logical sense. Thanks, Anthony!

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      1. It applies both macro and micro senses, too. There’s the example I gave above (two characters run into each other ten minutes after they both hear a gunshot — each has to have been doing ten minutes worth of stuff in between), but it applies to lifetimes, too. I once made a spreadsheet for all my major characters, showing when they were born, and using that I could project how old they would be relative to each other when they met decades later. If one character is another character’s mother, for example, they have to have the right age difference between them when they meet later on (based on how old the mother was when she gave birth).

        Glad I was able to give you a good idea!

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        1. I try to keep track of things like that, too. It really does help, especially when the story jumps forward in time 8 years.

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  9. I notice it in novels also. I think writers definitely do this.
    but with NaNo , I guess that stuff is not possible right ? Unless you outline and prepare for NaNo.

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    1. I’m talking about a revision technique. Although if you do plot carefully enough, you could plant some objects at the beginning of your NaNo novel for use at the end.

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  10. I always have to go back and add objects or symbols. At a writing conference I attended, it’s what Bruce Coville called the “set-up” and “pay-off” in fiction. Sometimes, while I’m writing a later scene, I’ll consciously realize I need to go back and add something to an earlier chapter, and I’ll note it in the margin: “Add charm necklace to beginning,” or “Give Mr. X a pet.” Other times I won’t realize I need it until I’m revising. Working with symbols is something Donald Maass has some great tips on in his Breakout Novel workbook. (I’m always citing Donald Maass. He’s my hero.)

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