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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Babylon 5: The Gathering” (Feature Length Pilot Episode)

2015 Artwork Babylon 5 The Gathering Review sketch

Although I finally watched all five seasons of “Bablyon 5” earlier this year (and late last year), it suddenly occurred to me that I’d never actually seen the pilot episode of the show.

This was because there was almost a a one-year gap between the pilot’s original TV showing in 1993 and the beginning of the first season in 1994. What this meant is that the pilot was released on a separate DVD (in the UK at least) to the rest of the show.

And, since the pilot episode was going fairly cheap second hand, I thought that I’d check it out. Before I begin reviewing the episode, I should probably point out that the episode was released on DVD in the early 2000s.

What this means is that it comes in one of those old-school cardboard and plastic DVD cases (which are kind of cool) and it also means that it has very few, if any, special features. In other words, it’s a “bare bones” release. But, I hardly ever watch special features anyway, so this wasn’t a major issue for me.

Anyway, “Babylon 5:The Gathering” is set shortly after the opening of the ‘Babylon 5’ space station. This is a gigantic city-like space station in that is run by humans, but open to anyone across the galaxy.

Following a large war between humanity and a race of aliens called the minbari, it was decided that Bablyon 5 would be a neutral space station – where representatives of all the major powers in the galaxy (the humans, the minbari, the centauri, the narns, the vorlons etc..) can meet to debate important interplanetary issues and politics. It’s kind of like a futuristic version of the UN.

The opening of the station goes fairly well and many of the representatives have already arrived, but when the ambassador for the mysterious and secretive vorlons arrives – he suddenly falls gravely ill and it quickly becomes clear that someone has tried to assassinate him. It is up to the crew of Bablyon 5 to find the culprit and save the ambassador’s life before the assassination attempt causes a major interplanetary incident…

One of the first things that I will say about “The Gathering” is that it is surprisingly different to the rest of the TV show in a few notable ways.

For starters, the station’s second-in-command in “The Gathering” is a character called Laurel Takashima (played by Tamlyn Tomita), rather than Susan Ivanova (played by Claudia Christian).

Takashima and Ivanova are fairly similar characters, but there are a few crucial differences (eg: Takashima tends to be slightly more “by the book”, and slightly less cynical, than Ivanova) which are kind of surprising.

In addition to this, the station has a different doctor in the pilot than it does in the TV show – Dr. Kyle (played by Johnny Sekka) in the pilot is a lot older than Dr. Franklin (played by Richard Biggs) from the TV show is.

Likewise, it’s pretty clear that the makers of the show were still working out some of the other character designs too. Although the minbari ambassador (Delenn) is still played by Mira Furlan, she has a much “colder” personality (even resorting to torturing someone at one point in the pilot) in the pilot, and her makeup is also a lot more “severe” than it is in the TV show (eg: she has a pointier chin and slightly sharper facial features).

If you like the TV show, then you’ll like this episode. And, if you haven’t seen the TV show before, then it’s a good introduction to the series (and it probably also explains why I initially found the show so hard to get into, because I didn’t watch the pilot until recently).

As for the story, it’s absolutely brilliant. Seriously, I absolutely love sci-fi detective stories and it’s great to see one of these types of story in the very first episode of “Babylon 5”.

However, this detective storyline isn’t as fast-paced and suspenseful as I’d initially expected – mainly because “The Gathering” also has to spend quite a bit of time introducing all of the characters and explaining the background to the show. So, in some parts of the episode, the investigation feels more like a sub-plot than a major part of the plot.

Likewise, although I don’t want to give away any spoilers – the solution to the mystery might seem slightly contrived and random at first. Although there is some explanation later in the episode, some parts of the ending might not seem entirely plausible or understandable until you’ve watched some of the later seasons of the TV show.

Then again, this was the pilot episode for a meticulously-planned and novelistic TV show. So, this is to be expected – but it might be surprising for people who haven’t seen the rest of the show first.

Visually, “The Gathering” is pretty spectacular for something made in the early 1990s. Although the CGI special effects for some of the exterior shots may look extremely clunky by modern standards, they were fairly cutting-edge at the time. Thankfully, all of the interior areas of the spaceship look like well-designed traditional film sets rather than CGI though.

Interestingly, there are apparently two different versions of “The Gathering” in existence. Looking around online, the version available on DVD in the UK is apparently the “special edition” of “The Gathering”.

What this means is that it contains fourteen minutes of extra footage, some re-edited scenes and some of the original audio (according to this website, many of Takashima’s lines were re-dubbed in the original broadcast version because the studio executives worried that she sounded “too strong”, or something stupid like that).

Since I haven’t seen the original UK broadcast of “The Gathering” (since I was extremely young at the time) and since it wasn’t included on the DVD, I can’t compare the two versions. But, from all I’ve heard, the version on the DVD is the ‘definitive’ version of the pilot episode.

All in all, “The Gathering” is a good beginning to a great show. Yes, the pacing could have been improved slightly (eg: there could have been more emphasis on the mystery storyline, and more suspense). But, well, it had to introduce the premise of an entire TV series in about ninety minutes – so, this is understandable.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

How To Make Your Audience Suspend Their Disbelief

2015 Artwork Suspension Of Disbelief Article Sketch

If you’ve never heard the phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief” before – it describes the exact point where you accept something fantastical or unrealistic as just an ‘ordinary’ part of the story or comic that you’re reading (or the TV show that you’re watching).

It’s the point where you go from thinking “magic isn’t real… and this story is silly” to thinking “Why didn’t Harry Potter just use the Expelliarmus spell right there?“.

It’s been a few years since I’ve read any Harry Potter (I read the last three “Harry Potter” novels over the space of about four days in 2007), so this probably isn’t the best example to use.

So, I’ll talk about a more recent example of when it happened to me and see if there’s anything about storytelling that we can learn from it.

A couple of months ago, I started watching a classic 1990s sci-fi show called “Babylon 5” for the very first time. It had been going cheap on DVD and I’d bought the first two seasons last autumn and had only just got round to watching it.

My reaction to the very first episode was something along the lines of “So, this is what ‘Star Trek’ looks like to people who aren’t fans of it!”.

The alien costumes looked silly, the dialogue sounded stilted, the mythology of the show seemed slightly absurd and the early-1990s CGI effects made Playstation One games look realistic by comparison. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh at the show or cringe at it.

But, I remembered one of the rules I have about TV shows – namely, “Don’t judge a show by it’s first episode“. So, in an effort to justify buying two seasons of this show to myself – I forced myself to watch the second episode.

Needless to say, something shifted within me as I watched episode two and – by the end of it – I found that I was enjoying the show as much as I had enjoyed other sci-fi shows. The characters seemed a little bit more interesting, some of the set designs reminded me of “Blade Runner” and I was even very slightly curious about the mythology of the show.

So, what changed? A few things did.

Firstly, the second episode had a much more interesting story than the first episode did. Whilst the first episode contained a rather melodramatic and formulaic story about interstellar peace negotiations, the second episode was a horror-based episode about an alien who vicariously enjoys the experience of other people’s deaths via telepathy before he steals their souls.

It was dramatic, it was genuinely creepy and I was curious to see how it would end. All of my previous criticisms of the show faded into the background because I was interested in the story that was being told.

So, if you want your audience to suspend their disbelief, then make sure that you’re telling an interesting enough story to distract them from the “unrealistic” parts of your story.

Secondly, I got to know the characters a little bit better. Even though my first impressions of the “Babylon 5” characters weren’t that good, they started to grow on me once I’d spent more than forty-five minutes in their company.

Having interesting and compelling characters is another way to make sure that your audience “suspends their disbelief”.

Ideally, your characters should make a good impression and be interesting from the first moment that your audience encounters them. But, even if it takes a while for your audience to get to know them – they should still be interesting. After all, if your readers don’t care about the characters, then they’re much more likely to notice everything else in your story.

Finally, if you want your audience to “suspend their disbelief”, then everything has to make sense in context.

What I mean by this is that you can include all sorts of “unrealistic” and “fantastical” stuff in your story, but it has to follow it’s own set of ‘rules’. And this, I think, is where some stories fail when it comes to making their audience “suspend their disbelief” – they either don’t make the rules very clear or they end up changing them too often (which just leaves the audience feeling slightly confused).

Of course, this was another reason why I liked the second episode of “Babylon 5” more than the first one. When I saw the first episode of the show, I had no clue whatsoever about the “rules” of the fictional universe that it was set in. So, anything strange or unrealistic stood out a lot more until the show explained it.

But, by the time I’d started watching the second episode, I had a vague grasp of what was and what wasn’t part of the show’s mythology – so I could stop analysing everything and just enjoy the story.

Establishing the “rules” of your story is something of an awkward process and there are a lot of different ways to do it (eg: through dialogue, through just showing your audience things etc…), but it is something that you must do if you want your audience to “suspend their disbelief”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂