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When a character outsmarts another character and that character explains how he did it, should you mention things that weren't shown or alluded to?

Let's say you have character A, and character A was able to predict everything character B was going to do and was basically able to completely walk over him and not leave him any chance of succeed in his plan.

When character A reveals to character B how he was able to predict everything and his plan against character B was perfect, when you go over the plan, can you mention elements that were never alluded to, shown or foreshadowed? If you have to reveal, allude or foreshadow, how do you show as little as possible to catch your readers off-guard?

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If your story is told only from Character B's point of view (3rd person limited, aka 3PL), you don't have to show how Character A tricked them.

That's one of the great things about 3PL, your character can be tricked, lied to or manipulated without you showing that. The reader is your character, and shouldn't know what that character doesn't know.

If your narrator is omniscient, and knows what everybody is thinking all the time, then to play fair with the reader, you have to tell them when a character is lying.

To me, that ruins the story, I won't write an omniscient narrator.

In 3PL, your reader should be privy to everything your POV character knows and feels.

But in Star Wars, our POV character is Luke Skywalker. In the movie, when Luke accuses Darth Vader of killing his father, and Vader says "No. I am your father," the audience is just as blind-sided as Luke is. And that is as it should be.

(Some will argue that was foreshadowed, but the scenes they claim are foreshadowing are so ambiguous I disagree. Like the battle in the cave, seeing his face behind Vader's mask; to me is showing the danger of turning to the Dark Side, not at all foreshadowing a genetic link.)

It is okay to blindside your POV character and your reader that identifies with them, as long as the blindsiding actually makes sense. We already know Luke is an orphan, and knows little about his father, mostly only what Obi Wan and Yoda has told him. They have been vague. This reveal makes sense. It did not have to be foreshadowed, or shown, to work.

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  • To me the symbolism in the darkside cave can be both as at this point in the story, Luke is in a similar position as Anikan was: A padawan who began training much too old and is easily frustrated by things he cannot cannot do with his supposed powers. There is a danger that Luke could fall to the dark side... but the best way to show him is by scaring him about how close he is to the man in the mask. Luke is more alike to his hated enemy than he realizes... both by personality and by blood. It also foreshadows the lesser impact of the climax.+
    – hszmv
    Aug 15 at 9:59
  • +Darth Vader is more machine than man now... Luke by the end of Empire is also setting off on this path as we see his hand replaced with a robotic one. His nature is precariously closer to Vader... and growing closer. The only thing in the cave is what Luke took with him.
    – hszmv
    Aug 15 at 10:04
  • @hszmv I disgree; Vader's sustenance suit has little to do with his brain and emotions. Having artificial limbs, lungs, whatever does not dehumanize us. Stephen Hawkings inability to use his body did not make him less of a human being. And since Vader ultimately betrays his masters out of love for others I'd argue he was far more human all along than you make out.
    – Amadeus
    Aug 15 at 13:29
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If the outsmarting is not a major element of the plot, I'd say sure. If I was reading a story and B is introduced and A says, "Yes, I met B before, and I was able to outsmart him by doing X, Y, and Z", then even if none of that happened "on stage", I would say that A's description of it is the exposition and all that we need.

But if the story is basically about this outsmarting, like if this is a mystery story and the whole point of the story is that B committed the murder and brilliant detective A catches him, then having A rely on clues that are not mentioned until the conclusion is unfair to the reader. The whole game of a mystery story is that the reader is trying to solve the crime along with the detective. If there are some subtle, ambiguous clues, and then at the end you just throw in that the detective says, "Oh, and also, there were two eye witnesses who came forward and identified you as the killer" and you'd never given any hint of this before, I think many readers would be howling that this is unfair.

I can understand that it can be difficult to introduce a clue without giving it away. I remember seeing a TV mystery story once where a critical clue turns out to be that there was an extra towel in the bathroom at the hotel. They show us the detective looking through the bathroom, and we see the extra towel on the TV screen, but I didn't think anything of it at the time and I suppose many other viewers didn't either. But it was fair: they showed us the extra towel quite clearly. In a written store that might be tricky. If you say, "The detective noticed an extra towel", well that gives it away. Maybe if you casually said, "He looked over the contents of the bathroom. Two rolls of toilet paper, a bottle of shampoo, three towels, two bars of soap." And then elsewhere you tell us how the hotel policy was two rolls of toilet paper, a bottle of shampoo, two towels, and two bars of soap, you've given the clue without calling attention to it. But it can be tricky.

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No.

Agatha Christie actually had a rule about this, and it appears this was a broader unspoken rule among mystery story writers at the time (who were often associates or in writing groups together).

The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described. No willful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

This has to do with managing audience expectations. If you're writing a story about someone outsmarting someone else, the emotion you're trying to evoke in the reader is either suspense or smugness that they were able to figure things out before the characters did. If you invoke information the readers cannot pick up on their own before the reveal, you're effectively tipping your hand that the story is a rigged carnival game, and people don't like that. They want a fair chance to solve the mystery. Think of that one episode of What's New, Scooby Doo where the culprit turns out to be no one ever heard of and Velma almost breaks the fourth wall to throw a hissy fit over it. That's how your readers will feel.

The exception would be if the information is supposed to be a huge twist, like the Star Wars example with Darth Vader given by Greg Martin. In that case the emotion the audience wants to feel is shock and surprise, and therefore they want the reveal to come out of left field (but still make sense within continuity).

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