Normally I ignore April Fools’ Day, but it occurred to me that it would be thematically appropriate to talk about a valuable writing skill: hiding things from your audience.

“Wait, what? Hiding things? That doesn’t sound like a good idea! The whole point of writing is to tell them things!”

Exactly! But you don’t just tell them the end first, do you? You build up to it, with clues that set up the twists, but then hide those clues so that it’s still a surprise to all but the most eagle-eyed.

I feel I should issue a warning, though. Learning these concepts can lead some people to feel that all stories are ruined forever. If you’re just here for the reviews, don’t read any further. Personally, I find it enjoyable to spot the tricks, especially with a skilled author; it doesn’t ruin it any more than knowing how to spot individual brush strokes will ruin a masterful painting. Still, I’ve seen people become disappointed, and so I give you fair notice. 

The concept of foreshadowing is pretty well-known, but it’s often confused for the process of setting up a twist. Foreshadowing is best described by the principle known as Chekhov’s Gun, though that idea takes it from the opposite direction. Anton Chekhov (not Pavel, or else it would be known as Chekhov’s Phaser) meant to underscore the importance of not putting unnecessary things in the story. It’s been modified since then to describe the idea that certain things are expected to be used in certain ways; if they aren’t, then the audience is disappointed.

That is foreshadowing. It overlaps slightly with, but is not the same as, the concept known as “setup and payoff,” or (less usefully) “the twist.” To put it another way, if you’re successful at pulling off a twist, that means you did not foreshadow it, but you did set it up.

Foreshadowing, boiled down, is nothing more than using a thing the way the audience expects it. In Chekhov’s example, the appearance of a gun signifies a certain idea (namely, its use as a gun), and so it must be used or the audience is confused. The obvious use is as a weapon, but using it in a different way creates a “payoff,” or the twist. The audience both gets what it expects, and yet is still surprised.

Example 1: Doctor Who

A few years ago, there were two Doctor Who stories that used this exact example. In both situations, the Doctor — an individual who, while not always nonviolent, normally tries very hard not to step over the line — finds himself with a gun in his hand. The first was in “The End of Time,” where the Doctor has been handed an old revolver, “just in case,” despite the fact that he doesn’t want it.

The scene where he’s given it sets up the later payoff: if the Doctor does wind up using it, it means things have really hit rock bottom. It also gives the classic foreshadowing, literally employing Chekhov’s gun: the audience expects that gun to be used.


The foreshadowing is about its use, pure and simple. The payoff is when the Doctor, faced with the impossible choice of killing one of two people, instead uses the gun in a nonlethal way: shooting out a key piece of equipment. The setup all along has been that he is only going to pull out that gun when things are at their worst, and that situation then reveals that the only way to solve things is to murder someone. The audience is left unsure how the Doctor is able to get out of it.

And then the twist: the Doctor shoots the equipment, which strands him once more, alone among the stars, the last Time Lord. It is a huge personal cost for him, but one that leaves his morals intact.

The second time the Doctor holds a gun is in the end of “The Time of Angels,” where the Doctor demands a soldier’s gun and gives his enemy a warning. The episode closes as the gun fires.

Deja vu.

The impact here is far less severe than in “The End of Time,” particularly when going on a Doctor Who DVD binge (meaning there’s only four episodes between these two scenes, while in broadcast there was over a year). We’ve already had a similar scene, and this time around we haven’t had the same sort of setup. The Doctor is also up against an enemy against whom bullets really don’t matter. It made a good moment in the series trailer, but not a good cliffhanger ending to a two-part episode.

Sure enough, in the next episode (“Flesh and Stone”), it opens to reveal that the Doctor just used it to shoot out another piece of equipment, giving the good guys an escape route that seemed almost completely contrived. The nature of the escape wasn’t introduced ahead of time, or — to use the proper term — it wasn’t set up. Add that to the repeat of the gun, and there wasn’t nearly as much punch to that situation as there could have been.

Example 2: Macbeth

“But wait,” you complain. “I’m not one of those rabid Doctor Who fans. Don’t you have another example?”

Sure. I’ll use Macbeth, which means it’s spoiler-free. (Okay, it’s totally not, but I’m just going to assume you studied it in high school. If not, here’s a very short version. Watch it and come back.) In the play, the three witches give a prophecy to Macbeth: the Thane of Cawdor shall be king. When Macbeth is appointed Thane of Cawdor and he kills the king, the prophecy comes true in a very literal way.

Here Macduff looks at Macbeth and utters the famous line, “Sucks to be you.”

Shakespeare uses both setup and foreshadowing at this point, when Macbeth goes back to the witches. He receives another prophecy: that he should “beware Macduff,” and then is told “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.” Through foreshadowing, the audience knows that what the witches say is true, and so we expect it to come true. The setup lies in the misdirection, however, and so we have the twist at the end: Macduff reveals that he was delivered via Caesarean section rather than through a natural birth. All the prophecies have come true, but Macbeth assumed they were all literal simply because the first was — and so does the audience experiencing it for the first time.

If you want to witness this in under two minutes, try this version by my friends. Rest assured, it’s devoid of any other literary value!

How to Hide It

The obvious way to start is by not letting the audience know what is and is not a clue. This, however, generally only works in mystery genre stories, where it’s known as the red herring. One of the best examples of this is in the Lord Peter Wimsy book Five Red Herrings, because there the audience is told up front that — with six suspects in a murder designed to implicate any of them — there are five false leads. Both Lord Peter and the police are at a loss at first, particularly since it was very nearly declared an accidental death rather than murder.

The downside to using this technique, however, is that if you lean on it too heavily, you have to spend a considerable amount of time narrowing the field along with your detective. In fact, Five Red Herrings is often criticized for being “boring,” as the proof deals with things like exact railway times and proving small details to be false. (I do, however, recommend the live-action adaptation staring Ian Carmichael.)

G. K. Chesterton wrote about the same idea nearly a hundred years ago, when talking about detective stories. He maintained that a proper mystery was not about confusing the reader, but rather letting the reader discover the answer at the same rate, or just slightly faster, than the detective:

People cannot be excited except about something; and at this stage of ignorance the reader has nothing to be excited about. People are thrilled by knowing something, and on this principle they know nothing. The true object of an intelligent detective story is not to baffle the reader, but to enlighten the reader; but to enlighten him in such a manner that each successive portion of the truth comes as a surprise.

Another method is using humor. Everyone loves a joke, and so humor always justifies itself. In fact, it’s the only thing in a story that, theoretically, should ever be left to stand on its own; everything else should do double duty. Of course, technically, all humor exists on multiple levels anyway, which means that you can use it to distract even the eagle-eyed audience — at least, as long as they find the joke funny. Part of this lies in the fact that many jokes employ the idea of setup and payoff themselves — even the lowly lightbulb joke.

How many ninjas does-- Never mind, the lightbulb was changed when I wasn't looking.

How many ninjas does it take to– Never mind, I blinked.

The way to use this one is to drop the clue, and then provide some sort of humorous moment immediately during or after. It’s often used in Harry Potter, for one example; Rowling does an excellent job at packing key plot points and clues into a small space, as she can have as many in a few chapters as other authors have in whole books. The humorous and often wondrous situations the characters get into help distract the reader from spotting key moments until the right time.

A third method is, in effect, the magician’s trick: giving the audience what it expects while revealing the truth only at the last moment. The difference here is that the story, unlike the illusionist, will reveal all at the end of the performance. This is the best technique, but also the most difficult because it must be subtle. It lies in letting the reader see the puzzle all along, with all the information needed to solve it, but presenting it in such a way that things fall into place only at the right moment.

In another essay, Chesterton wrote about the importance of this literary slight-of-hand, using the Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze.” Now, if you follow that link, the story will be spoiled; Chesterton thought it ridiculous to pretend otherwise, as Holmes stories at that time were so ubiquitous that it would be akin to saying today that Gandalf comes back in The Two Towers.

And when you’re done with that, click on the image to be taken to one of my favorite comics. Happy archive diving!

Not every Sherlock Holmes story is a great example of setup and payoff, of course. If you want some mystery short stories that really exemplify setup and payoff, I recommend the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garret (a $4 ebook from Baen for the complete series; what are you waiting for?).

You can also see this in nearly every Hitchcock film, as well as the movie Charades (which feels exactly like a Hitchcock film, but he wasn’t involved).  Of course, you should watch Hitchcock films anyway. Don’t doubt me.

If you want a novel, though, my standard example is Elantrisby Brandon Sanderson. The reveal at the end is picture-perfect, and has been staring you in the face since the beginning — but since the clue was introduced before the context, it creates a textbook example of this technique. And, if you like that, you should move on to Sanderson’s other books. The reveal at the end of The Way of Kings (click here for my review) isn’t a punch-the-air moment like in Elantris, but it’s still a moment I stop to savor even on a re-read.

If you’re looking for more, the podcast series Writing Excuses (which I’ve mentioned before) talks about this idea a lot, particularly since Brandon Sanderson is one of the co-hosts. You can find plenty of suggestions and examples on multiple episodes.

Comments? Suggestions? Do you have an awesome example from a popular work of fiction that you think people have seen — or should see? Let me know below!