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In movies and TV shows and the like, there are often details that the writers work in that are hard to catch at first sight, but can be found if you happen to look for those details. For example, Character N always wears a necklace as it was a gift from his brother, but during the last few episodes (or minutes, or movies, etc.) he hasn't been wearing it because he got in a toxic fight with his brother and none of the other characters notice it until much later.

Is there a way to work something in that the average reader might not notice while reading through unless they were specifically looking for it?

  • I really like this question. – JP Chapleau May 12 '17 at 15:43
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There is no background in prose. The reader receives every word and they receive them one at a time. Thus there is no place to hide anything.

Where you can be more subtle is in the connections between things. If you mention a rose, it is a foreground rose for the moment the reader is reading a word, but if you mentions roses several times and in several contexts throughout a work, the reader may not notice the significance of that motif being repeated.

On film, the director composes an entire scene but it is left to the viewer to decide what parts of that scene to look at. In prose, the writer dictates exactly where the eye falls at all times. All readers see the same thing when they read, but that does not mean that they all remember it, or even that they grasp its significance the first time it is seen.

So, you cannot obscure things in space, the way you can in a film, but you can hide (or reveal) things in time, just as you can in a film.

This means that you actually have far more control in prose than you have in film. You can control what the reader sees with much more precision and therefore control the effects of realized connections much more closely.

  • Very interesting explanation. I like it very much and reminds me of The Playwrights Guidebook (amzn.to/2pP5tfu) where I originally learned the difference between novel, movie, play. Have you read that? Fantastic explanation about how this works and explains it in a very similar way about where the "watchers" eye lands. Plays are a in between movies and novels. Really interesting. – raddevus May 5 '17 at 19:51
  • I was just thinking along those lines... The situation is that the author is completely in control. There is no opportunity for a reader, however alert, to know anything that is not mentioned. There is little opportunity to ignore anything that is mentioned. Thus, when an author drips out details, it is a losing game for the reader. Even for people who behave stereotypically, real life is more complicated. A screenplay (or even the entirety of Wagner's four Ring operas) does not have a lot of words, compared to even a small novel. – user23046 May 5 '17 at 23:09
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Here's a possible way forward. I don't often encourage subtleties like this, because readers may miss them.

Scene 1

The next day Charlie came into the office wearing that big stupid polka dotted bow tie...

Scene 2x

Charlie walked across the dance floor and introduced himself to the brunette. "Nice tie," she said. "I always go for a guy who wears polka dots."

Scene 3x

Charlie slammed on the brakes and screamed as his 2012 BMW X2 slammed into the pole. The air bag exploded in his face and his horn blared. He struggled to keep consciousness, opened the door and fell out into the ditch. His eyes blurred and he tried to breathe. He pulled at the bow tie trying to get air. Charlie stumbled out of the

much later in the story...

Scene 4x

Charlie showed up outside the city meeting. Something was different about him. He was angry and disheveled. He went to the back of his BMW X2 popped open the hatch and pulled out a baseball bat. "Who says you can't fight city hall," he muttered under his breath.

Scene 5x

Charlie woke up inside the jail cell with the foul smell of burning hair filling his nostrils. "What?" He rubbed his head and reached for his collar. "What's going on?"

I stopped mentioning the bow tie. Then I have him grab for his collar. You could do this that subtly, but you better then tell your readers exactly what is happening. Readers may miss it.

Always Mention The McGuffin

However, this may be just enough. The point is that you have to mention it always when he has it. That way when he doesn't have it and you don't mention it then alert readers will notice.

  • 3
    I like this. I remember something similar from a story with magical realism. Character A lost his arm in battle. Character B is a wizard who created a wooden arm for him to wear. As the story progresses, the wood "grows" and fills in, becoming more realistic, until near the end of the story A "puts his hands" on something. You have to pay attention to realize it's hands, plural, and therefore the wooden arm is now alive and moving like a flesh one. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum May 5 '17 at 21:47
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A few common techniques that mystery writers use to hide clues in plain sight:

  • Put the detail in the middle of a long list of details. People pay more attention to the first and last items, and less attention to the ones in the middle.
  • Write a scene in the POV of a character who doesn't know the significance of the missing necktie. The viewpoint character will note N's attire, but simply not notice that N would normally be wearing a tie.
  • Have a POV character mention a detail that would suggest (without stating outright) that the necktie is missing. Maybe N unbuttons the top button of his shirt.
  • Put the detail (not wearing a tie) in an early chapter, where it has no particular significance. Give the significance of the detail (it was a gift from his brother, and he always wore it) in a much later chapter. Maybe deliver these two bits of information in different characters' viewpoints. The separation makes it makes the connection less obvious to the reader.
  • For an example of this, in the first Harry Potter book, a somewhat important clue (establishing the importance of Nicholas Flamel to the story) appears to be a throw-away line. (Of course, this had the result of every word of the novels being analyzed into little pieces on Internet discussion groups.) – EvilSnack May 6 '17 at 23:05
  • @EvilSnack "Of course, this had the result of every word of the novels being analyzed into little pieces on Internet discussion groups." I very strongly suspect you might get that effect no matter what you do. :-) – a CVn Jan 3 '18 at 19:52
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I disagree with the first answer. The core of the problem is the writer's individual style. Essentially, we're discussing the well-worn subject of 'show don't tell'.

Showing leads the reader to derive or conclude based on the presented information.

"Can you get the Wok from the top cupboard, please?" said Mrs Smith. "You know I can't reach." "Stir fry, again?" said Mr Smith. "Why can't we have some good old American food?"

  • From this brief exchange the reader will make assumptions that are not stated facts. e.g. The characters are married. Mr Smith is taller than Mrs Smith.

Let's examine this on a more complicated level . . .

We have a mixed race female character "Charlie". Throughout school she identified with the blacks and Hispanics. Charlie's world is music, from a very young age she could rarely be found without earbuds blasting Hip-hop into her ears.

In random scene, earbuds in, Charlie's doing her homework in her room. Her stepmom shocks her by taking her by the shoulders and turning her around to tell her that her dinner is ready.

You've been shown (but are unaware of the fact) Charlie has two superpowers.

We come to a critical scene: Charlie's in a nightclub, dancing. Music is pounding. A huge narcotics deal is about to go down. But the Colombian drug-dealers are plotting to kill the undercover cops and steal the cash. How do we know this?

You were told . . . On the balance of probability Charlie can speak Spanish, and based on all the previous conversations that had taken place with her earphones in - Charlie's pretty adept at lip-reading.

With your character, perhaps put them in a situation where the absence of the necklace exposed by its omission whilst you through in a red-herring to further distract the reader. e.g the character has a brief meeting or is required to deliver something to a person in a courthouse or, at an airport, or inside an embassy. She's required to pass through a metal detector so hands her phone and watch to the security staff. She returns five minutes later and curses. "WTF? Five missed calls!"

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You could repeatedly describe the appearance of N. at certain points (e.g. when your protagonist meets him). Each time, mention the necklace as part of the description.

After the fight, describe the appearance, but omit the necklace.

The only thing is it might seem a bit contrived (esp. if N. is the only character whose appearance you repeatedly describe). But it could work if, for example, the protagonist likes to pay particular attention to people's clothes, or N. has a habit of wearing unusual or gaudy, or particularly fashionable or unfashionable clothes.

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