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 include information in the form of a list, always bury the most important part in the middle. People notice 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 the rebel headquarters (C), then it’s reasonable to conclude that John is responsible for blowing up the 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), with the connection to the culprit (A) arriving only at the end.
- The drawback of this method is that it excludes any kind of surprise ending. Avoid this by changing the order: Share (C) and (A) with your reader while withholding the crucial (B) that links the two to stretch out the suspense or setup a twist.
- For longer chains of clues (A -> B -> C -> D -> E) 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 included.
- 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 trivial or common or innocuous that has important consequences when taken to its logical conclusion.
- In Agatha Christie‘s murder mystery play The Mousetrap, a couple is having an anniversary at the beginning. Taken at face value, it tells the viewer about their relationship. At the end of the play it is revealed that they were hiding anniversary presents from one another which led to an explanation of the bigger mystery. Christie was a master of this technique.
- Add in misdirection.
- The most famous form of misdirection has to be the Red Herring – a false clue mixed in with the correct ones to lead its interpreter to the wrong conclusion. Red herrings can be left accidentally or purposely by actual culprits or sympathizers.
- “Make the reader think they know what’s going on, even though it isn’t.” – Adam Heine on Holding Back Surprises – Author’s Echo
- “Scooby-Doo was a master of this … for 7-year-olds. If your audience is any older, you’ll have to get more creative. The trick, I think, is to believe your own lie as you write it.” – Adam Heine on Holding Back Surprises – Author’s Echo
- This form of “[m]isdirection has a lot of flavors, but I like putting the knowledge out there only to have the MC [Main Character] interpret it for the reader … wrongly. If your reader is bonding well with your MC, this can work well (as long as your MC isn’t being stupid – which is a very relative term!).” – Susan Kaye Quinn on Holding Back Surprises – Author’s Echo
- Have an expert argue against the correct interpretation.
- Humans tend to focus on experts in novels as in real life. When a character takes a stand against something, the burden of proof is on them as a person. Thus the focus moves away from evaluating the evidence to evaluating the expert. Make the expert believable and you will have deceived the reader.
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.