I've been planning a story that follows two characters. At the end, one character (let's call him Joe) goes back in time and appears at the start of the book.

I intend to explore themes of determinism vs free will throughout the story.

On the first read-through of the story, the reader does not know that the character who appeared at the beginning is Joe. Instead, Older-Joe is treated as a minor character and does not appear often.

I intend to follow Older-Joe's story: how he tries to use his free will to change time, and slowly realises that he cannot since the events have already happened. He eventually realises that he is not truly in control of anything, since he knows his own future and has no power to control it in any way.

I would like to mislead the reader into thinking that the book tells the story of Young-Joe. Upon reading the story for a second time, the reader would pick up some form of clue that indicates that Old-Joe is Young-Joe from the end of the book. Using this knowledge, the reader would then notice details that point towards a second story detailing Old-Joe's mental struggles.

How can I make these small pieces of information seem unimportant on the first readthrough, but incredibly relevant on the second readthrough?

Ideally, they would need to be completely forgotten, but carry some sort of relevance to an event or object at the end of the book in order to link Old-Joe to Young-Joe.

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    Are you going to explain things at the end or are you counting on people rereading your book? I wouldn't bet on people rereading it. Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 17:07
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    @WhiteEagle neither would I. It'll be prompted
    – Aric
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 17:33
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    @WhiteEagle the second plot unfolds during the second read, with some sort of clue at the end of the book which leads the reader onto that train of thought
    – Aric
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 19:04
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    If you have the time, I suggest that you check out the anime Wolf's Rain, although of course that's done in a more visual media than your typical novel. I think you'll find the first and last few episodes of the animated version particularly interesting in this regard.
    – user
    Commented May 3, 2018 at 16:52
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    @RobbieGoodwin I'm not trying to write a bestselling novel here; this is a personal project. You can either answer the question as it is or move on
    – Aric
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 16:28

5 Answers 5


As I often do, I would refer you to what I call "Sturgeon's method" (from Theodore Sturgeon, via Samuel Delany) which is to establish --for yourself --a far fuller and richer sense of the details of your fictional world than you'll actually end up putting on the page. In this particular case, I would write a complete version of Old Joe's story first, from his perspective. (No one will ever see that version except you.) Then go back, and using what you've learned from the first version, write Young Joe's version, entirely from his perspective, and including only the things Young Joe would know or notice. Thus, Old Joe's story will exist like a palimpsest beneath Young Joe's, but in the most organic and natural possible manner.

You might not realize, but there are more than a few well-known stories with this same closed timeloop structure --it might or might not be valuable to seek them out. Robert Heinlein explored it twice with "By His Bootstraps" and "All You Zombies" (filmed as Predestination, 2014). Delany himself explores it explicitly in Empire Star and implicitly in Dhalgren. This last features an entire city gradually revealed to exist in a closed timeloop, as does Diana Wynne Jones' Tale of Time City. It features heavily in the movie 12 Monkeys, as well as in the French film that inspired it, La Jetée and is the main theme of the movie Looper. There's an interesting variation on it in the "Oceans Unmoving" sequence of the long-running webcomic, Sluggy Freelance. It has also been explored frequently in television science fiction, notably in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Dr Who, and is a minor theme in Piers Anthony's OX and Michael Ende's Neverending Story.

As many versions as I've listed here --some by excellent authors --I don't know that I've ever found any of them completely satisfying. It's easy to get all caught up in the mechanics of it (like Heinlein does), or just to fall in love with the concept itself (which is the problem in Empire Star). To really be done well, I think the challenge is similar to a sequel. Both stories need to be complete and satisfying in themselves, but they also have to connect together into a single large story arc.

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    Bounty awarded for "Sturgeon's method" and the treasure trove of examples for me to check out, thanks a lot!
    – Aric
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 17:00
  • As many versions as I've listed here --some by excellent authors --I don't know that I've ever found any of them completely satisfying, so I'm eager to see what you do with it. Commented May 9, 2018 at 17:31
  • Well, it won't be any time soon, mark my words. Maybe I should write "Chris Sunami" on my notepad so maybe in a few years I'll remember, heh
    – Aric
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 16:32
  • In the "Thursday Next" series as well there is such an Joe - Older Joe pair of characters. Though that does not play a central role in the plot (as far as I can tell).
    – Fred vdP
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 22:09
  • "La Jetée" is spelt thusly rather than "La Jeteé" (mind the accent). Sadly I can't fix that myself in the answer because that's too small a change.
    – Fred vdP
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 22:10

There are a few things you can do to hide small bits of information until something is made clear until a second go through. The only piece of literature I can think of that does this well is "Where Have You Been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?" from the anthology The Future in Questions. It is a short story and may be worth a read (if you can find it anywhere). The movie Interstellar does this quite well. Small items become major plot items as the story progresses, but things don't truly make sense until a second watch.

There are several things you can do to find information until another read:

  1. Have one or more vague item/event that doesn't make much sense followed by an intense/more obviously important part that helps the reader forget about their confusion from the last scene.
  2. You can attach importance some hidden value to an object/place that isn't explained until the end of the book and doesn't make much sense until a second read through.
  3. Ambiguity is your friend. The less the reader knows, the better is a good saying to go by for a story like this. Keep things quite confusing until a final reveal.
  4. The best advice I can give you is to find stories that require two or more reads/watches until you understand what is happening. Study what those stories do right and how you can reproduce that feeling in your story.
  • While I'm not awarding the bounty to this answer, I found the points given very useful and will certainly take them into account. Thank you and +1
    – Aric
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 16:59
  • @AricFowler Thanks for the kind words. Glad to help. Commented May 9, 2018 at 17:30

Your question made me recall an animated Sci-Fi movie from the 80s which I absolutely enjoyed when I was a child:

Les Maîtres du temps

The art of hiding a twist is in providing a front story that completely occupies reader's attention and is quite satisfying by itself. The clues which you leave out should get some ordinary explanation and should not seem to be important until the very end.


You are describing the basic Plot Twist. At some point in the story a second plot is revealed which changes the reader's interpretation of events that already happened.

The way this works is to write two plots which share events in common. Under the first plot, events are interpreted one way, but the second plot also fits all the facts.

If you set out dropping hints and winking at the audience, they will guess a plot twist is coming long before you reveal it. The goal is that the first plot should be 100% plausible and also fit all the known events.

This assumes you don't have a constantly shifting timeline full of paradoxes and do-overs.


Human learning is like a mobile (the baby toy)

We start with our core ideas of knowledge, and then hang new ideas from them. These new ideas then give us spots to attach even more new ideas. It's kind of like an upside down bush. When teaching someone for this reason it is very important to teach things in this order. If you give someone ideas that they don't yet have places to hang they will be tossed to the side. Now very smart people can later once given these anchor points attach ideas they previously tossed aside, but most people will just keep moving forward only having things hung up on their mental model of the storing which came in the correct order.

So how do we use this to our advantage when writing a twist? We want to give the reader logs of great, detailed ideas, but no place to hang them. By the time the reader is done they should have the basic story structure, but all these parts they did not know where to put. Now the second time they read it, they will already have this mental mobile made out of the parts they understood. When they look at each part anew as they reread the story they will suddenly find where to hang these ideas. This time when they are done reading they will have the structure complete, and now have a full understanding.

Let's try to do a simple example. Let's say we are reading a book and we get some facts. Now unlike here this would be burred in thousands of words, so it would not be so obvious.

Bob woke up early - OK this is our core fact. There is a character Bob. Bob wore a large jacket. -OK we know who bob is. So we can hang under Bob that he wears a large jacket. Caims is a city is in Australia. - What? Why am i being told this? I am not going to remember this. It was January- OK this is another core idea Setting. Bob is in Caims - OK I know who Bob is, let me hang this under Bob Bob tried to draw his shotgun, but fortunately security already had him picked out- Ok I know who Bob is, I can understand this

Now that we have this structure we can go through it one more time. Now we reach Caims is in Australia. Oh now we have a place to hang this. Bob is in Caims. And now it all comes together. It is weird for bob to have a large jacket on in the middle of summer. This is how the security guard picks him out.

  • I believe you may have seen Cairns written in a bad font - it's RN, not M :) Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 13:13

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