A good story weaves events together in a way that’s unexpected yet satisfying. Things that happened early on have repercussions much later in the story.
Sometimes it’s obvious when an object or a piece of information is planted by the author for an eventual pay-off, other times it’s more subtle. Both approaches can be effective, depending on the writer’s intent. But the important thing is that when the pay-off comes the reader should be able to put two and two together without having to rack their brains for what just happened.
This isn’t always an easy thing to achieve. A novel is a long and time consuming thing to read. Readers aren’t always completely focused and they may be reading over a few days or a few weeks.
If there’s one piece of important information in amongst a thousands of words it can easily be missed or forgotten.
And it isn’t always the long, winding tales this can happen with. The writer can set something up at the beginning of a chapter and pay it off by the end of the same chapter, and if it’s convoluted enough the reader can have forgotten key details.
If a doctor asks his receptionist to send in the next patient and he starts talking to Mrs Jones, is he talking to the patient or the receptionist? If they’re both middle-aged women and lots of names have been used it can force the reader to flick back to make sure (very annoying with an e-book).
Sometimes (as with the above case) it takes a little tweaking to avoid confusion. Making the receptionist younger with tattoos and the patient posh and older will make it very clear which one is called Mrs Caton-Jones. But you can’t always clarify things so easily, especially if the set-up is at the beginning of the book and the pay-off is at the end.
Trying to imprint a particular piece of info onto the reader’s mind can feel like sticking a big neon sign over it that says, “Hey! Remember this, it’ll be important later.” Which is fine if that’s the intention (Spielberg uses this approach very effectively in Schindler’s List where a little girl’s bright red coat is the only use of colour in a black and white film – which makes it hard to miss when the coat is seen in a pile of clothes belonging to murdered Jews). But usually the intent is to be a little more subtle.
So how do you make enough of an impression to stay in a reader’s memory, but not so much that it becomes clumsy and obvious?
In order to make it memorable it should have a role to play in the scene in which it appears. If a character mentions it in passing or makes a random observation, then it’s less likely to strike the reader as something worth retaining.
If the gold watch with the message engraved on it is just one of the things found in a drawer, it won’t necessarily be uppermost in the reader’s mind when it is referenced in the final chapter. However, if it is used to hypnotise the main character then it becomes more integrated into the story.
In addition, if the watch is given a satisfactory purpose, its second purpose for being in the story will be much easier to keep hidden from the reader.
That puts it in the story and disguises its true role, but in order to make it really pop when revealed it also helps to give it an emotional attachment to the main character.
In the scene where the person or object or information first appears, what effect does it have on the main character?
If the watch is used to hypnotise the character into remembering where he left his car keys, it won't have the same impact as a scene where the hypnosis leads to him remembering who murdered his father.
It doesn't have to be quite so extreme as that, but whenever you have something in the story you want the reader to remember, consider who the reader is identifying with in the scene, whose eyes they’re seeing the story through? How that person reacts will be what the reader remembers. If they react in a neutral manner, then it’s more likely to skim over the reader’s attention.
So take the thing you want to stay with the reader, give it a purpose in the current scene, make that scene emotionally effecting for the MC — now it’s in the reader’s memory. And when its true purpose is revealed not only will it be immediately clear what you’re referring to, but also the dual role will make it all the more satisfying.
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