[Author’s Note: This post is now outdated. Read the expanded and updated version.]
It’s an age-old problem: How to share information in a novel without readers picking up on your clues until the reveal at the end. Here are some strategies I’ve picked up on:
- Hide clues in plain sight.
- Duh. Most people are not that observant and rarely see what is right in front of their face.
- If you can include information in the form of a list, always bury the most important part in the middle. People remember the last thing in a list best, the first next-best, and the middle last.
- Share clues out of order.
- If you know that John has access to Love Potion #9 (A), Love Potion #9 actually causes explosions (B), and an explosion destroyed headquarters (C), then it’s reasonable to conclude that John is responsible for blowing up HQ (A -> B -> C). Many crimes in detective novels are constructed by the writer this way whereas the hero often learns A, B, and C in REVERSE order. The crime (C) comes first, then the method (B), and is only connected with the culprit (A) at the end.
- The drawback of this method is that it excludes any kind of surprise ending! The solution is to mix up the order. Share (C) and (A) with your reader but withhold the crucial (B) that links the two until the end to stretch out suspense or setup a twist ending.
- For longer chains of clues (A -> B -> C -> D -> E, for example) you can get very, very creative. Just don’t get so complicated that readers can’t follow the chain.
- Establish a secondary purpose for something already explained.
- In the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the mind game program that Ender periodically interacts with is used to explain how the buggers communicate with Ender at the end of the book. However in the sequel, it must ALSO be the source for a sentient computer program.
- We humans like our loose ends packaged up into nice, neat little containers. Card surprises us by killing two birds with one stone. It’s efficient and it’s always unexpected when done right.
- Share something innocuous that has important consequences when taken to its logical conclusion.
Note that you can also combine these techniques for even better results. For example, place a shotgun on the back wall in your opening scene (hidden in plain sight). Readers won’t be looking for a gun (shared out of order) until someone gets shot in chapter 4, but you can bet they’ll remember it’s there in the last chapter if you’ll only remind them where it was the whole time.