Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Hi Allyson,

At the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Western Washington Fall Writers’ Retreat last weekend Cheryl Klein, Senior Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, identified three kinds of “action” or “external” plots (as opposed to “emotional” plots, which she defined as the moral and emotional development of your characters). The three kinds of action plots she described are:

1. conflict

2. mystery, and

3. lack (in which the main character misses a quality or seeks an object).

Although social conflict and personal lack are elements of various subplots in When You Reach Me, from the first page the book screams MYSTERY! Already, by the end of page 1, I wonder:

1. Who wrote the notes in the box under the narrator’s bed?
2. What do they say?
3. Why is the narrator saving them?

Those questions propel me into Chapter 2, where yet another mystery is presented:

4. Why does Mom have to win the money?

Mysteries abound. What is the “last proof” the narrator mentions at the top of page 2? And which proofs precede the “last one”? Why is the narrator supposed to write this mysterious “you” a letter? And why, above all, doesn’t the narrator want to watch the “movie” that it is all about?

More mysteries emerge. Why did Marcus hit Sal? Who left the rose on Annemarie’s doormat? Who stole Jimmy’s Fred Flintstone bank?

Throughout the book Stead drops clues that provide the answers to every single one of these mysteries, and others. But she drops them so lightly into the story that many flew right by me as I read. It wasn’t until I finished the book and went back to read it again that I could appreciate how cleverly she had placed them.

Who would connect the fact that the laughing man had about thirty fillings in his teeth (p. 16) to Marcus’ repeated trips to the dentist? I didn’t. Who could have guessed that a man running down Broadway stark naked (p. 35) would turn out to be a hero? Not me. Who could imagine that the fact the notes appeared they “had once gotten wet” (p. 60) would be an indication of how they had been transported and delivered? These details seemed random, but they weren’t random at all. Each one was carefully crafted, thoughtfully fitted into the whole so that each piece of the puzzle, slipped into place, finally completed the picture. In retrospect, each clue was hidden in plain sight.

Even the reason for Mom having to win the money is revealed clue by clue. First of all, she hated her work. (p. 6) She wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer, started law school, and had to quit when Miranda was born. (p. 10) And finally, Richard gave Miranda an envelope full of applications for law school to give to her mother after her mother won $10,000 in the Winner’s Circle. (p. 191)

Stead skillfully threads clues throughout the fabric of the entire book, weaving them in one by one so subtly that I’m enticed to keep reading to find out the answers to the questions posed on the first page: who is writing the notes, what they say, why the narrator is saving them, and most of all, what they mean.

Storysleuths’ tip #25: Use mystery plots and subplots to hook readers, then keep them reading by dropping clues judiciously in bits and pieces. But make sure to tie up all the loose ends.

NEW!! Go to NEXT When You Reach Me post.