I’d like to include in a story “mysteries” and deceptions that (ideally) should be obvious in hindsight (By obvious, I mean "elephant in the room" kind of obvious).

How to give to the reader every element they need to unravel a mystery, while keeping them from resolving it?

How to hide something in plain sight?

I’m looking (preferably) for methods to keep the reader from seeing what is right in front of them.

Example (in a story with magic and stuff):

The Main Character meets early in the story auntie A, who appears to be an old man wearing women clothes. Since other characters have known auntie A for years and don’t seem to find it weird or unusual, the MC doesn’t comment on it. She regularly goes to Auntie A for advices and guidance afterwards.

During the course of the story, MC discover that she is immune to some specific types of magic (including illusions and mental manipulation), and learns why they don’t affect her. Also, a couple of characters who know auntie A show signs of bigotry towards sexual minorities.

While investigating the disappearance of one of her relatives, MC finds the months old corpse of a woman. At first she assumes that the deceased is the person she was looking for. She realises later that it’s the corpse of the real Auntie A, and that the man she met actually stole her indentity, used a spell to make himself look like her and lives in her home, wearing her clothes to increase the spell’s effectiveness.

I’m afraid that since the readers will have every element they need to realise the deception, the reveal won’t have any impact. Moreover, my only readers for now are close friends and I already talked with them about this idea, so I won’t know if it works when I’ll show them the first complete draft.

  • 1
    I have difficulties explaining what I'm looking for. If needed I can rephrase the question, or delete it if there is no way to make it less broad. Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 10:23
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    Read and watch various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes. Pay attention to what he observes and what he deduces from those observations. You may not be able to talk about the clay in a footprint being from a three-square-block section of London, but it's good practice. Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 12:35
  • To build on Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum's Answer, can you tell us what was wrong with Conan Doyle's suggestion that to hide something in plain sight, what's needed is literally to leave that thing in plain sight? Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 22:16
  • @BabikaBabaka You want something called Steganography? (Even if this wasn't the expected comment, I'll add it to related-things at least! :) ) Commented Mar 16, 2023 at 12:04

6 Answers 6


I see others missing the problem the clue is an elephant in the room. They hint on hiding various subtle clues. The problem is this is not a subtle clue.

Missing this clue would totally break suspension of disbelief. It's far too obvious. It must be hidden in the plain sight.

What you need here is misdirection. Unintentional, accidental event that changes the perception of the clue by the reader.

In this case, I'd play on the character's bigotry towards sexual minorities, by making the genuine appear a mockery. In particular, pick a person who's known Auntie A for years, and have them poke fun at Auntie's bigotry. The genuine Auntie's offense will appear utterly ridiculous when spoken by a cross-dressing man. The situation where the joker pokes fun at a straight-face will be easily misinterpreted as humorous blather between two jokers. The fact others don't see Auntie for who she is really, will be easily taken for this being a quirk of the relationship, where the crossdressing fact is so accepted that rude jokes between friends about it are taken well and enjoyed by all.

The difficulty is in writing a single dialogue that has two meanings. One is a genuine exchange between a cosmopolitan and a bigot (who are still friends despite their differences). The other is a parody of the above, where all the genuine ripostes are taken as tongue-in-cheek mockeries, the situational humor contributing to their appearances.

  • The first version of the question was poorly worded, hat's why the other answers are a bit off. Love the idea of dialogues with two meanings, I'll start by working on that, thanks! Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 9:23
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    I think this is key: using dialogue that could express two meanings where the reader taking it at face value would infer one thing, but when they know the secret it would mean another. In addition, dropping more hints into your example, the MC could laugh at one of the 'jokes', thinking they are having friendly banter, and the relative looks at her quizzically, and she doesn't understand why. Later it will be obvious that she laughed inappropriately at what was a serious discussion. Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 9:46

Mystery Requires Vicarious Experience

Fiction is best read when you experience it as the main character. That is why modern fiction which is written in close 3rd person is quite popular. Of course, first person fiction is also quite popular but it is often sloppy and only used because the author thinks in first person so s/he writes stories that way.

If you were to write in a Close 3rd Person throughout your story then the reader would only know what your main character knows and only experience the things your main character experiences.

That means you could simply write the story as a journal of what your 3rd person character discovers and your reader would learn the details of the mystery. As your character learns these details then your reader would also.

Mystery Requires Structure Writing in such a way should clear it all up for you. However, it also reveals that you need a bit of structure.

Warning: Do Not Think High School Outline

A lot of writers have been damaged by learning formal outlining in high school with all the rigid rules. An outline is just a tool so you can pre-think. It is a prototype of your story. This prototype will allow you to test your story to see if it'll work overall.

Quick Sample


Scotty Watkins, computer programmer moonlighting as a network repair guy discovers a virus on his small business client's computer. Investigating the code he determines where it is from. Local police are no help so he goes it alone. This leads him to a local gang of programmers which he infiltrates. His local client's bank accounts are all drained and he has to figure out who did it.

Scene 1: Watkins meets local business owner and works on computer, discovers nefarious activity

Scene 2: Reverse engineers code and discovers a geographical clue - believes person behind it is local

Scene 3: Client's bank account is drained, they think it is Watkins who did it. Confrontation by owner.

Scene 4: Watkins is arrested. Clients money is in Watkins account. The hackers are attempting to frame him.

Scene 5: Released on large bail. Attempts to get police to help him. One sympathetic investigator but a lot of politics involved, he must prove his own innocence.

Scene 6: Watkins is forced to change his identity to stay out of jail and investigate the theft.

Scene 7: Studying the code further leads him to a society of hacker criminals who may know more. Attempts to contact them as someone interested in helping them hack.

Scene 8: He meets with one person who knows the hackers. person warns him that they are dangerous and you can never get out alive once you're in.j

True Outline Form : Stimulate Creativity, Not Overwhelm

We can then layer in the detailed clues across this outline more easily and then we can write the entire story. I just made the entire story up while writing this answer so the outline is meant to be just enough to stimulate thought while allowing flexibility. Just because it is on the outline doesn't mean it won't change.

I believe these items may help you get further along with your story. Good luck.

  • Thank your for your answer. I'm sorry, my question wasn't well explained at first, so your answer isn't what I was looking for. I've edited the question, it should be clearer now. Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 8:45
  • We all make assumptions about how things are and then fit all the "facts" into frameworks of ideas built upon them. When those assumptions are wrong, then all sorts of elephants can appear to be mice and vice versa. So, what assumptions will you lead your readers to have?
    – Joe
    Commented Jun 15, 2016 at 8:23
  • @Joe I added an example in the question, I can add another one if it can make the question clearer. Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 11:33
  • @CerisestHilaire - My comment was intended as a generic point of view toward solving the problem - not as a criticism or solution. Actually pulling something like this off is way beyond my writing skills - which are mostly geared toward non-fiction.
    – Joe
    Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 4:24

I would scatter a lot of small, subtle clues throughout the text. The idea is that no single clue will give it away, and they’re disparate enough to prevent the reader from putting 2 and 2 and 2 and 2 together and getting 8. But, on a second reading, in hindsight, they should all clearly be clues pointing to the big secret. “Ah! Of course, that’s what that meant!”

A few examples plucked from bookshelves and memory:

  • Steven Gould, Wildside. A character with a big secret, not revealed until the end, but many clues before then.

  • Spider Robinson, Time Pressure. Likewise.

  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. Here, the secret is about society at large. Many hints throughout, but the full picture needs to be explained at the climax. The hints are not very disparate or subtle, though; more like a picture being gradually revealed, bit by bit, then the rest of the mask torn off at the end.

  • Thank your for your answer. I'm sorry, my question wasn't well explained at first, so your answer isn't what I was looking for. I've edited the question, it should be clearer now. Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 8:45

What I try to do when hiding clues is to make the POV character misinterpret them believably. Using your example, what if the MC knew a cross-dressing man who was generally accepted and commonly called Auntie So-and-so? This gives a plausible reason for the MC to mistakenly take for granted that everyone else knows auntie is a man.

The principle I'm trying to describe is that there need to be at least two plausible interpretations for clues hidden in plain sight. It has already been mentioned that one technique for doing this is dialogue (a clue) that can be interpreted multiple ways. Each interpretation of a hidden clue needs to fit into a self-consistent theory of the truth, only one of which is completely right. By having many clues all reinforce that same mistaken theory, it can be quite the surprise when a new clue contradicts the theory.

  • I love your first point. In no way meant as a critique of the second, but the first illustrates perfectly the (possible) humane understanding of social mechanisms and personal quirks leading to the odd acceptance you can encounter in various social constellations. It could serve brilliantly as both character 'development' -device and a storytelling and deceit -device. - I was instantly thrown into a believable imaginative family where one uncle, perhaps called Alan, went by the name 'Auntie A.'
    – storbror
    Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 11:22

You do this the same way a magician does an illusion, by misdirection. You introduce the discontinuity while the reader is paying attention to something else, and then you continue forward using the illusionary reality as your perceptual frame. In your case, that means your character should note Auntie A's mannishness as a passing detail while something else is foregrounded --maybe Auntie A's annoying personality, or some kind of domestic crisis. After that, write the story largely as though Auntie A was who she claims to be. If you drop other hints, do so while some other issue is taking center stage.

It's worth noting that a great writer can pull this off even if you guess or even know the secret from the start, by catching you up in the alternate reality. In point of fact, all fiction rides on the back of suspension of disbelief --we know the narrative is invented when we start the story, but we start to experience it as real as it is made vivid to us. To give one example, I knew the secret of the movie The Sixth Sense before I ever watched it, but that didn't stop me from losing sight of it early on. The propulsive narrative was so engaging, it kept me from obsessing over the twist. Similarly, when I read The Princess Bride, I was so annoyed by Goldman's interjections, that I completely lost track of the fact that he was the actual author of the novel, and not the "abridger" he presented himself as.

One last note: You might consider reading Paul Russell's novel Boys of Life. Although it isn't a main theme of the book, one of the late revelations is that one of the major characters was transgender, without the narrator ever realizing that fact.


'The Good Place' famously hid a major secret in plain sight for an entire season. So watching it would be a very good way to learn how to leave subtle hints. Despite the fact that the hidden idea is revealed relatively early, I'm sure you would be able to incorporate some of the ideas into your own writing.

A bit of context on 'The Good Place'; it's actually a TV show, about four individuals who have died and been placed in a heaven-like setting. Other than that, I think it would be too much of a spoiler for me to get into.

Regardless, even if you don't end up using any of the ideas, it's a great watch!

  • Welcome to Writing.SE Jason! This answer is currently in the low-quality review queue as "not an answer" because you say that you "don't have an actual answer". Could you edit this to be an actual answer? Otherwise it might get deleted. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun!
    – Secespitus
    Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 11:29
  • This was so well done, even the actors on the show were shocked by the twist: (Warning, SPOILERS!) vulture.com/2017/09/… Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 13:45

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