Four Basic Ways To Add Hidden Depths And Clues To Your Stories Or Comics

2015 Artwork Hidden Depths Article sketch

Although this is an article about writing and storytelling, I’m going to have to start by talking about a TV show called “Babylon 5” for a while. As you may have guessed, there’s a good reason for this which will hopefully become apparent later. But, I should probably point out that this article may contain some SPOILERS for “Babylon 5” though.

Yesterday, I reviewed a “Babylon 5” DVD that I watched recently and I also linked to this site about the series that I discovered recently.

Anyway, one of the interesting things about “The Lurker’s Guide” is – as well as containing lots of interviews with J.Michael Straczynski (the creator of the show) where he reveals fascinating “behind the scenes” details for each episode, it also contains an analysis of each episode – with points out some of the hidden clues and plot foreshadowing that have been hidden in plain sight.

Many of these things completely passed me by when I watched the series for the first time (and I should probably re-watch it again).

To give you an example of what I mean, here’s something from The Lurker’s Guide’s analysis of the seventh’s episode of the show (“The War Prayer”): “Londo’s nicknames for his wives are “Pestilence, Famine, and Death” – three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse from ancient Christian mythos. Who is the fourth horseman War? Perhaps Londo himself.

Anyway, I absolutely love it when writers include these kinds of things in novels, comics, TV shows, movies etc…

Not only is it great when you actually spot one of these hidden things and work it out for yourself, but it also means that there are a lot of good reasons for re-watching or re-reading something which you’ve already looked at once. So, adding hidden clues and hidden foreshadowing can also be a great way to ensure that people don’t just look at your story once.

But, how do you include these kinds of things in your story or comic? Here are a few very basic tips:

1) Common knowledge: Like in the example from “Babylon 5” I showed you earlier, one of the easiest ways to drop hidden clues into your story is to make subtle references to slightly older things that are common knowledge, but not part of everyday life.

For example, most people know what the four horsemen of the apocalypse are. But, not that many people would probably jump to conclusions if you just mentioned three of them and left one out – because the four horsemen aren’t usually something that turn up in everyday conversation.

The four horsemen are a good subject for humour, drama or cynicism and – as such- most people wouldn’t take a reference to them entirely seriously (making it the perfect subject for slipping in a hidden plot clue).

In fact, when I first saw that particular episode of “Babylon 5”, my first reaction to Londo’s comment was probably “Oh, it’s just his cynical sense of humour“. I certainly didn’t notice that it was a cunningly hidden clue about a lot of Londo’s future actions until it was explicitly spelled out for me on that website. Yet, it was right there – hiding in in plain sight the whole time.

So, don’t be afraid to use common knowledge in clever ways if you want to hint at or foreshadow something.

2) Characters: One of the sneakiest ways to include hidden hints in your stories is through your characters. If you show one of your characters reacting to something in a subtly unusual way or doing something that is subtly unusual fairly early in your story, then your audience is likely to write this off as just a personality quirk or as just a part of that particular character.

However, as you may have guessed, this sort of thing is perfect for including hidden clues about a character’s past or future actions – especially if you bury it amongst several other subtly unusual personality quirks that have absolutely nothing to do with the future of the story.

For example, if you show a character who is something of a neat freak, then this could either be a subtle reference to something in their past or it could be a clue about their future actions (eg: if they end up in a position of power, then they’re probably going to be more likely to act in an authoritarian way). Or it could just be a completely random personality quirk that has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

3) Background details: This one works better in visual mediums like comics, but the background is the perfect place for hiding interesting plot clues. Because your readers are distracted by everything that is happening in the foreground, they’re less likely to notice subtle details in the background (especially if they’re buried amongst lots of other subtle details that have little or no relevance to the plot).

This means that a lot of subtle foreshadowing in the background will completely pass your audience by until they read your comic for the second or third time (when they already know the story and are therefore more likely to pay attention to the rest of the comic too).

This sort of thing is a lot harder to do in prose fiction, for the simple reason that your readers will read literally every word on the page. All this means is that you have to be a lot more subtle with your clues, since your readers will see them the first time that they read your story (but whether they actually understand them is a different subject altogether).

4) Humour: There’s an old saying that “many a true word is spoken in jest” and this is because humour is one of the most perfect sources of misdirection known to humanity.

If your readers are laughing at something then, even if they realise that there’s a serious message behind what they’re laughing at – they’re going to be less critical of it.

Stand-up comedians use this fact to say serious things about the world that they might not get away with saying if they weren’t said in such a funny way. But, as you might have guessed, writers can also do this to sneak hidden clues about their stories past their audience. So, don’t be afraid to hide hidden plot clues in the funnier parts of your story or comic.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

2 comments on “Four Basic Ways To Add Hidden Depths And Clues To Your Stories Or Comics

  1. sfarnell says:

    Thanks for this – good advice

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