Cues and Audience Expectation

I have been thinking about Chekhov’s Gun lately. Although the principle is to only include the bits that will be important to the story, in my mind the more critical takeaway comes down to cues:

If you provide the audience with a clear cue, and fail to fulfill, exceed, or confound their expectations, they are going to be disappointed.

In other words, it’s ok to not fulfill their expectations, but if you don’t, you’d better come up with something even better.

What is a cue? This gets tricky, because the audience is on the lookout for cues, and they may spot a “cue” you didn’t think of — in which case they will be sad when nothing comes of it.

This is, to some extent, inevitable. After all, to produce a rich story, every single thing can’t blossom into a critical plot point. This is especially true in SFF, where vivid and interesting descriptions are often necessary to capture an alien world.

What is an author to do?

I think there are two really important things:

1 – Things that are described in greater detail will be assumed to be more important, unless there is a clear alternate reason for the degree of detail.

2 – There may be small dead-end cues. That is ok, as long as they are minor enough that the memory of them is washed away by the cue that is fulfilled.

If you keep these in mind, your reader will be satisfied.

1 – Detail Equals Importance

This really comes down to use of attention. If the author lavishes something with attention, the audience expects it to be important.

That can be tricky in SFF, where world building is important. If you dwell lovingly on a gun hanging over the mantel, will the audience expect it to be used?

As long as there is a clear reason to be dwelling on it — other than cueing — it isn’t as dangerous. If something is out of place, most readers will presume that it is a cue.

Consider the following examples:

The gun over the mantlepiece was an 8 series Omega Orbital blaster. It was flanked by a pair of Zagon dueling blasters and a rare sniper’s laser from Antares.


The gun over the mantelpiece had belonged to the professor’s great-grandfather. A filigree of brass curled across the polished wooden stock. An antique ammunition case sat on the bookshelf to the right, half lost among the scholarly tomes.

Which gun do you think is more likely to be used in the story? Which is a stronger cue?

To my mind, the first is simply describing the home of a weapons collector. Oh, I’d expect some sort of mayhem to come about, but it would actually be fun if it turned out to be the antique sabers off to the right.

The second is a gun in a professor’s library. Yes, its presence is explained, but it seems a surprising detail. I’d expect it to go off, or get stolen, or perhaps get damaged. Or I might expect it to signal that the professor is actually interested in guns, and is a crack shot. Regardless, it is included for a purpose.

2 – Small Dead-Ends are Inevitable. . . and OK

If you’re busily describing all sorts of interesting things, some things will catch the audience’s attention more than others. You might expect the audience to be paying attention to the antique gun, but maybe they were more interested in the ammunition case. Or the faded photograph next to the ammunition case. Or….

That is inevitable. And it is not necessarily a problem.

A detail that doesn’t turn into anything only matters if the audience thinks at the end “wait a minute, what happened to X?”

If they do that, you have a cueing problem.

The important thing is that potential cues will usually only be remembered if they became important, or if they were so vivid that the audience members told themselves a story about it.

Once the audience starts theorizing, you have some fulfilling to do.

Thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Please Comment!

Next time:

An example of horrible cueing: Wing Commander.