How to leave clues for your readers the right way
There are spoilers for the show The Curfew and the movie A Quiet Place in this article. Also for the Sixth Sense, but that’s an old, old movie. Having said that, if you haven’t seen the Sixth Sense, go and watch it now. Most of the time I don’t care about spoilers, but for that movie, the twist is essential. I’m going to talk about about how to do callbacks well, setting things up for later. There are some brilliant ones in The Curfew (I am watching it as I type this, it inspired me).
What is Chekov’s Gun?
Chekov’s gun is an idea that when you set something up, you then pay it off. The exact way of stating it was if you show a gun hanging over the mantle in act one, it has to go off in act three. The name comes from the playwright Anton Chekov, who originated the idea.
The key to this is that if the gun is going to be the resolution to the story, you should present it early on. That way, the reader will recognize that they have seen this item; they will have a strong sense of closure at it being the instrument of resolution.
How to Use it
Include a detail early in the story, have that detail be important to the story later, but do it with a touch of subtlety. When you describe the room in act one, describe the gun over the mantle. Make it part of the background. At the end of the story, somebody is going to get shot with that gun, and that is going to be the resolution. It’s pretty simple.
In the Sixth Sense, the callbacks are incredibly subtle. They use the colour red in any scene with a ghost and only scenes with a ghost. The lead character shows up a lot in scenes with red.
An incredibly creative use of a callback
So the sixth sense is subtle. The Curfew isn’t as subtle. It’s creative though because they use the Chekov’s Bazooka early in the show. It’s a throwaway solution to a small issue in an early episode. They take out a bazooka and send a pulse to draw the mooks (zombies by any other name) to a roadblock they need to get past. That causes a massive conflict between the zombies and the guards, which clears the barrier for them. It makes sense in the context of the show, and it’s very, very early in the series. Episode two, I believe. The other thing it does is establish that this group has a bazooka. Later one of the characters is being held in an armoured transport, and the group needs to free him. They are talking solutions, and one of them says, “What if we use the bazooka?”. If that came out of nowhere, it would have sucked; this is very close to the end of the season. Since we already knew the bazooka is there, even though it hasn’t come up since early on (and it makes sense that it hasn’t, there hasn’t been any use for it) we feel a sense of “oh yeah, that makes complete sense.”
What makes this so satisfying is that not only did we see the item, we were shown the use of it and then dismissed it. They had already done the thing that they needed a bazooka for. The bazooka then became a part of the background. There was nothing overt or obvious about the bazooka, nothing that made it clear it was a callback. When it was used again, it gave the audience a moment to feel satisfied, to think that this was clever of the characters and that we would have reached the same place (in fact, I did, as the characters came up with the idea so did I, I think an instant before them).
Doing it wrong
Compare that to A Quiet Place. There are callbacks all over the place, but they are either not earned or far too blatant.
In the blatant category, there is a nail in one shot in the movie. That nail is pulled up by a piece of cloth so now it is pointing straight up and it is on a set of stairs. Someone is going to step on that nail. Since one of the major plot points of the movie is the need for silence, that is going to create a problem. There are two issues with this callback. First, they linger on the nail. It practically fills the frame as the camera lingers on it. That is terrible. It is screaming, “Look, somebody is going to step on this. Seriously guys, look!!!!” which I find distracting as all hell. That same element would work if they did it in a more throwaway manner. The nail gets pulled up, so it was a threat, but quickly, as part of the sequence of the character going up the stairs, a quick pull and then the nail is straight up. The audience will notice, we are not idiots. If we don’t see consciously, we will when the character steps on the nail. It will be an “oh wait, they set that up in advance, wow!” moment instead of waiting for it to happen.
The second issue with the nail is that nails aren’t used like that in stairs. Seriously, someone drove a nail from the bottom of the stair into the top and then bent it down. You can do that, but you have to give it a reason. There is no reason.
I’m now going to spoil the entire movie (although the nail is a significant plot element, if you didn’t see it coming from the first scene I would be shocked). The daughter of the family in A Quiet Place is deaf. She has a hearing aid. The father has repaired that hearing aid in the family. The entire planet is overrun with monsters that hunt by sound. They have incredibly acute hearing but are blind. The result of the improperly repaired hearing aid is sound on a frequency which harms the monsters and makes them vulnerable to conventional weapons. Okay, they set up the hearing aid being janky, they set up the hearing aid making a high pitched squeal, that’s all cool. They do nothing to indicate that there is a reason for us to believe the monsters will be affected by something like that. I mean, it’s weak. It presumes that all of the governments on earth didn’t try sonic attacks on a variety of spectrums when the monsters first landed. It’s pretty dumb.
Callbacks Need to be Earned
The Sixth Sense set up callback brilliantly. They set up every single element in advance, but it was hard to spot on first viewing. The Curfew did a great job with that one callback and did quite a few others that worked well. Fight Club is practically a master class in this — setting up a twist via callbacks that make it earned, things that are obvious on repeat viewings but that don’t seem obvious when you first watch the movie.
Quentin Tarantino does so many callbacks in his stories. Now, those aren’t the twist kind of callbacks. Tarantino doesn’t rely on surprise endings, but he does make sure that every element that is important to the story is established correctly before it is used. This is one of the many things that makes Tarantino such a master storyteller.
Stephen King also uses callbacks often, and like Tarantino, he sets them up well in advance. Small elements in the story come back
Callbacks are Needed for a Twist
If you are doing a twist ending you have to set it up in advance, give people clues to the twist, those are your callbacks. That’s what Fight Club and The Sixth Sense do so well. Many, many other movies try and fail, though. They either set up weak clues, weak callbacks, or they make them too obvious. Then there are the stories that omit the hints entirely. Those are the stories where the ending makes people rage and curse the creators.
Callbacks don’t mean twists, although they are often used for them. They make a story better; they induce a sense of fulfillment into the audience. They are not needed but will serve to make your story more fun and more readable, and isn’t that the whole point of creating fiction?