Let's say that a show strongly hints at the possibility of Susie having lost a baby as a teenager. Almost all of the fans accept this, but the hints are vague enough so that they can also be interpreted to support the idea that the baby that died was Susie's younger sister. Confirmation for the supporters of the first theory would come in the form of Susie over-empathizing with a mother who has just lost her baby and being very tight-lipped when Joe asks her why (why would be tight lipped if it was her sister?) and getting teary-eyed when watching mothers interact with their children. So while Susie losing her sister fits with the hints (though not as well as the more widely accepted story), it doesn't explain either of these situations, where Susie losing her daughter does.
Of course, there are alternate explanations for both of these situations, but really only one that explains them both, and the show has already hinted at it repeatedly. This is where writers want to include an idea — any element contributing to the plot or a character — in canonicity, but don't want to explicitly state it. As a work-around, the writers hint at the idea until it's accepted by most of the fandom. These hints are usually strong enough that most of the fandom gets the right idea fairly quickly, but not so strong that they can't be ignored or attributed to something else if the viewer dislikes the idea being hinted at. The point is, after all, getting the idea across to a large portion of the fandom while offering a less convenient, but still plausible, alternative explanation for those viewers who don't want to believe.
This tactic is most often employed when writers want to include an element such as mental illness, rape, in older shows, homosexuality, or another sensitive topic in a plotline or a character's backstory as a means of plot or character development, but don't want to explicitly state it to avoid controversy or alienating certain viewers, and also to subvert censorship. The artistic reasons for doing this is Show, Don't Tell, it's more interesting to tempt readers to figure this out for themselves than explicitly spell it out. Likewise, the information in question is merely backstory and subtext to the plot in question. If a plot is an adventure/crime/heist/romance story, potentially disturbing and traumatic details might overpower the drama of the genre setting, so for a writer, it's better to put this in the background and leave it for the specially involved reader and viewer.
If the hints are particularly weak or ambiguous, it can be difficult to determine if they are deliberate or merely a coincidence. Short of a Word of God confirmation of intent, the easiest way to establish this is if the idea is built on as if it was canonical. Bear in mind also that, for this trope to apply, the fanon has to result from the hints. If the fanon existed with more than a few supporters before the idea was hinted at it's just fanon.
This trope is most common in live TV shows, but shows up in other mediums fairly often as well.
For when this happens with a ship, see Ship Tease. Can result from intentional Canon Fodder. Contrast with Wild Mass Guessing and also Applicability where a given work is deliberately written so as to be open to multiple interpretations rather than a single one.
- Ken Akamatsu's Mahou Sensei Negima!, Love Hina, and A.I. Love You are heavily implied to be set in the same Verse. He can't outright state this because of legal issues.
- It is hinted several times in Slayers that Naga is Amelia's older sister.
- Pokémon Adventures: The Striaton Trio really being the mysterious Shadow Triad of Team Plasma, due to the overwhelming hints. The fact that it's a common theory for the games and anime helps. And despite all those hints, this theory is eventually jossed with the Striaton Trio battling the Triad.
- For an example dating back all the way to the first generation, it was assumed for years by fans that Mr. Fuji, of Lavender Town, was the scientist who created Mewtwo in the games, who then retired to the Pokémon Tower to repent. Though Mewtwo's creator in the movie is called Dr. Fuji, he looks nothing like his game counterpart and their personalities are very different — however, this is par for the course for the early anime, so it deterred no one from thinking that it is true in game canonicity as well as anime canonicity. Despite one line of dialogue that might possibly suggest that Game!Fuji was at Cinnabar Island at the time that Mewtwo was clonednote there was still no clear evidence that Mr. Fuji even knows of Mewtwo's existence. However, the Pokémon Origins special does have him be the only person in Kanto who knows about Mewtwo, but still does not go out and say that he in particular cloned him. Most fans have taken it as confirmation, though.
- At no point is it ever actually stated that Haruhi Suzumiya is set in the author's hometown of Nishinomiya. It is just very strongly implied, thanks to the animators going out of their way to faithfully replicate real locations in the area.
- Axis Powers Hetalia: Himaruya has flirted with the idea that Germany is Holy Roman Empire with a memory loss for a long time, but he has yet to confirm it.
- Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. discussed the Ho Yay between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson at length in interviews to the point of leading several groups into believing (with either positive or negative reactions) that the gay subtext between the characters would actually become text within the film. The actual film portrayal is a fairly straightforward Bromance between two Heterosexual Life-Partners who both have female love interests.
- Ben-Hur (1959) had a famous example in the case of the Ben-Hur and Messala rivalry. Gore Vidal admitted that he and William Wyler when considering what backstory to provide that might justify Messala's sudden and inexplicable betrayal of Ben-Hur settled on the idea that the two were male lovers in their youth but drifted apart and Messala persecuted Ben-Hur because he believes he has been rebuffed. Wyler instructed Vidal to tell actor Stephen Boyd but not Charlton Heston, which is why much later Heston innocently denied this claim and tried to downplay Vidal's contribution to the film.
- Blade Runner has the famous "Deckard is Replicant" issue. Ridley Scott is quite keen on the idea that Deckard is a Replicant over the objections of the screenwriters and Harrison Ford himself. Scott got the idea mid-production. It wasn't originally in the Philip K. Dick novel nor was it planned at pre-production. Harrison Ford feels that Deckard has to be the main human being the audiences can relate to and properly be an Audience Surrogate and he was openly angry when Scott tried to insert the Unicorn origami scene since he caught on what he was trying to do. Hampton Fancher in any case feels that Deckard's humanity or lack thereof should never be openly addressed and become part of the surface experience of the film, and remain an issue of speculation.
- Rebel Without a Cause by Nicholas Ray has Sal Mineo's character Plato harbour a visibly obvious crush on James Dean's Jim Stark. The film's bisexual love triangle had long been considered canonical before it was outright admitted by Nick Ray in a TV interview, where he admitted that he, James Dean and Sal Mineo (who was himself bisexual) established the subtext and joked about how "this is for the movie buffs in France".
- John Ford's The Searchers hints heavily that Ethan and Martha were lovers in their youth and that Martha had to Settle for Sibling, the film has a lengthy private movement with the two actors alone and Ethan slowly kissing her on the head. Years later when Peter Bogdanovich asked Ford if he had intended to suggest a romance between them, Ford noted that he couldn't be more obvious if he tried.
- Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest has long implied that Martin Landau's character is attracted to James Mason's Van Damm, Landau is jealous of Eva Marie Saint's Femme Fatale character and expresses his suspicion by calling it "my woman's intuition". Years later, screenwriter Ernest Lehman confirmed that yes, he and Hitchcock, hinted that Landau and Mason were gay and lovers.
- Hitchcock's Rope is an adaptation of a play written by a gay author (Arthur Laurents), starring a bisexual lead actor (Farley Granger) and based on the Leopold and Loeb case of thrill-seeking homosexual dandies. The film doesn't mention homosexuality once (thanks to The Hays Code) but it's incredibly obvious from the setting, the context and the dialogue.
- Taxi Driver has Travis Bickle as a Vietnam War veteran. In the film this is casually hinted and not specified. Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader discuss the subtext as if it had always been part of the film.
- The Haunting (1963) has Theo acting incredibly affectionate towards Eleanor and she behaves as if she were a love interest. Eleanor's line to Theo about "nature's mistakes" is pretty much Getting Crap Past the Radar. There was even a planned opening that would have Theo in her apartment finding "I hate you" written on her mirror in lipstick - implying she had just split up with a female lover. Among fans it's universally agreed that Theo at least is gay. The 1999 remake made her an out and out bisexual.
- Hard Candy:
- It's assumed by a lot of viewers that Hayley had been molested at some point. Her actual motivation for targeting Jeff and his accomplice Aaron is never stated but Ellen Page herself believes this to be the case - and played some of her lines with a kind of righteous bitterness, as if coming from a former victim.
- A lot of viewers take a line from Hayley that was cut from the film - coupling with Ellen Page's Dawson Casting - that she's Older Than They Look and only posing as a fourteen-year-old.
- The Never Ending Story was basically written with the idea that its readers would write their own stories.
- John Dies at the End heavily implies that Dave was raped as a kid, but he refuses to talk about it. All he's willing to disclose is that he was held down by a group of bullies who did something awful to him.
- From NCIS, Ziva having been raped in Somalia. It was hinted at by Gibbs and Vance throughout the beginning of the seventh season and is widely accepted fanon.
- The idea is further used throughout the seventh and eighth seasons to help develop Ziva as a character, as well as her relationships with other characters, most substantially Gibbs, Tony, and her father, but remains non-canonical.
- Renee Walker having been raped on 24. While it was pretty evident that she was raped by Vladimir Laitanan during the events of Day 8, the writers never more than hinted at the idea that she was also raped when she was undercover with the Russians before. This is one of the most widely accepted pieces of fanon in the 24 fandom, many fans even considering it canonical.
- This idea is later used to help validate what Renee ends up doing to Laitanan.
- From Bones, Brennan having Asperger's Syndrome was an example of this until she was given a Word of God diagnosis. It's still an example of this if you don't consider the Word of God to be canonical.
- In Supernatural, the reason for Bela Talbot's Deal with the Devil to kill her parents being because her father molested her and her mother didn't intervene. There's also the pretty widespread theory floating around that Bela was the "weeping bitch" Alastair mentioned in "On the Head of a Pin" as the first soul Dean tortured in Hell and thus the first seal broken to free Lucifer.
- In Power Rangers RPM, various characters have Ambiguous Disorders: Dr. K has No Social Skills, and Sixth Rangers Gem and Gemma have all the emotional maturity of five-year-olds. All three were Child Prodigies that were abducted from their homes and denied normal childhoods, spending most of their lives in a military think tank called Alphabet Soup, so most fans blame that for inflicting emotional abuse on them.
- The Doctor's Mysterious Past has had messy implications heaped on it by every passing writer for the past fifty two years:
- The First Doctor is implied to be an outlaw, exiled from his home planet and forbidden from returning. Later fans and writers have run with the implication, as well as some Early Installment Weirdness, to suggest his fear of interfering with past events (or, from a Doylist perspective, the fact that only the first Doctor ever had purely historical adventures) is to avoid catching the attention of the Time Lords, and that he left Susan on earth in the 2164 so that she wouldn't be caught by them as well.
- The outlaw characterization is played up with the Second Doctor, who further implies he's the only survivor of his family. The Doctor's race is finally named for the first time, but their punishment of him complicates the circumstances under which he left his home world in the first place, raising the question of whether he's cast out from his people or if he escaped. In his final story, we meet his people in the form of both the Time Lords in general, as well as a particular one titled (but never named) as "The War Chief", who wears a dark jacket, a Dastardly Whiplash goatee, and who's using mind control powers to try and take over the galaxy.
- The Third Doctor's more aristocratic bearing was retroactively applied to the character, playing up the idea of him having been a "Lord of Time" more seriously than the first two Doctors really ever seemed to. The Third Doctor tells stories of having been an aimless, unhappy aristocratic child on a boring, yet beautiful world. We're introduced to the Master, a fellow Time Lord who wears a dark jacket, a Dastardly Whiplash goatee, and who's using mind control powers to try and take over the galaxy, whose relationship to the War Chief is never made clear in the actual program. He also tells stories of a mentor who helped him who is strongly implied to be the Time Lord that eventually helps him to regenerate into...
- The Fourth Doctor's immediate and urgent abandonment of Earth in general and UNIT in particular was likewise projected onto the past incarnations of the character, reframing his escape from Gallifrey as having been not because of some obscure but terrible crime or the death of his family, but more because he just couldn't sit still for one more second when he had the option to travel all of time and space. Even when given the opportunity to rule Gallifrey and "fix it" as he sought fit, he eagerly left it behind. Around this time, the concept of "Renegades" became somewhat more solid: The Doctor and the Master were so called because their actual names are, to some degree left to Fanon to clarify, unspeakable. The Fourth Doctor also was seemingly intended by long time writer Robert Holmes to be the final (or, at least, penultimate) Doctor, when it was revealed that Time Lords only have 12 regenerations, and an episode seemed to imply the Doctor had held 8 different faces before the televised first Doctor.
- The Fifth Doctor's era brought with it a change in how his relationship with the Master was viewed. The idea of the Master as a supervillainous arch-nemesis had been clear since the beginning, but a long run of Master-centric stories in the Fifth Doctor's run shifted it to more of the Master being a Doctor-obsessed troll.
- The Sixth Doctor's era cast the Doctor's wildly-inconsistent personalities into new light by revealing a possible future incarnation, a rules-obsessed Lawful Evil lackey of Gallifrey known as the Valeyard (which Fanon has interpreted to mean "a Doctor of Law"). The exact nature of the Valeyard is so ambiguous, though, that every sinister turn the Doctor has taken since then has been identified as the Valeyard (Grandfather Paradox, The Meta-Crisis Tenth Doctor, the Flesh Ganger Doctor, even the War Doctor when he was first introduced as a cliffhanger), a title it was recently confirmed the Doctor will yet someday bear.
- The Seventh Doctor brought with him the Cartmel Masterplan, an attempt to infuse the character with more mystery and power after decades of Gallifrey stories had robbed him of his uniqueness. The implications the show played with were stark, casting the Doctor as a Physical God of Gallifrey who stepped down and fled in a past far more distant than had been implied before. The further implications were made clear in the Expanded Universe, where the Doctor was revealed to maybe be the re-incarnation of the Other, one of the holy trinity of the Time Lords (the other two being Rassilon and Omega, the Big Good and Big Bad of earlier episodes), but the books are of ambiguous canonicity.
- The Eighth Doctor's somewhat absent era makes it rife for fandom interpretation. When the series returned with the Ninth Doctor, the implication was that the horrors of the Time War had been experienced by the Eighth Doctor, a somewhat inoffensive and charming character for whom it would all be terribly crushing to have to experience. Conveniently, the books had been wrapped up in an incredibly dense and yet incredibly unclear narrative about a war in time that destroyed Gallifrey for years by that point, so Fandom set about merging the two concepts in various ways. The Eighth Doctor was also the Doctor who (heh heh) infamously declared himself half-human, but in circumstances where he could be either joking or lying. The film seems to treat the words literally, implying one half of his body is human and the other half is not, just further complicating matters.
- The Ninth Doctor's era introduced the Time War to the series, creating a new justification for why he was the most important and unique of all Time Lords (namely, the rest were all dead). It also seemed to imply that the first ever companion, the Doctor's granddaughter Susan, was dead as well. Other mysteries lurk in the Ninth Doctor's era, mostly revolving around how fresh his face was in his first episode and whether he knew or had anything to do with Jack Harkness's past life. The big mystery, though, is whether the Ninth Doctor A: is canonically Bisexual, and/or B: is the first Bisexual Doctor.
- In the Tenth Doctor's era, the show again flirted with the implications of the Other, with characters noting that the Doctor was something strange, mythic, and terrifying even by Time Lord standards. The Tenth Doctor's era also introduced the aforementioned Meta-Crisis Doctor, who (due to retcons) ended up being numerically correct for the Valeyard's "between your twelfth and final incarnations" placement and was born of blood and battle and fury, and who would age and be unable to regenerate, all of which lead to some very common fanon regarding his fate. This was also the era where the running title gag of "Doctor Who?" started to gain more significance, with Madame de Pompadour declaring it "More than just a secret". Elsewhere, the era raised questions of what the Doctor's relationships with his companions really are, and really have been. The finale also featured a mysterious character who Fanon has made numerous vocal identifications of, the loudest being that she's the Doctor's long lost mother.
- The Eleventh Doctor's era recast the entire name issue as being tied up in a prophecy regarding the most mythic event in the new series: the Time War (though numerous Red Herring reveals along the way confused matters). Also, as the series went on, a great number of plot threads were Left Hanging due to time or casting constraints, leaving much of River Song's biography and the overarching Myth Arc ambiguous and up to Fanon to clarify.
- Community has dropped some heavy hints that Britta was molested as a child by a man in a dinosaur costume, with her online character bios outright confirming it.
- Though it is never explicitly spelled out, the clues add up enough so well that fans of Final Fantasy VIII universally accept the idea that Laguna is The Hero Squall's father.
- Likewise, in Final Fantasy VI it's never outright stated that Shadow is Relm's father, but it's implied strongly enough that it's regarded as canonical.
- In The Order of the Stick, Belkar Bitterleaf's asked if he caused the death of Roy, Miko, Miko's stupid horse, or the oracle, and got a "yes" answer. When Roy fell several hundred feet onto the ground to his death, many fans assumed this fulfilled the requirements, because without Belkar, Roy would not have been able to engage Xykon for that particular fight and thus would not have died. Later it turned out that the prophecy was less ambiguous as when told this by the Oracle, Belkar doesn't buy it and promptly stabs him to death. The reason why it's here is because in the compilation comic, Rich Burlew says he deliberately set this trope up so he could subvert it.
- Project Freelancer in Red vs. Blue was probably a project competing with the SPARTAN program, based on Washington's remarks that "there were dozens of projects all trying to come up with the magic bullet to win" during the war with the aliens, Burnie saying Dr. Church used to work with Dr. Halsey (who was behind the SPARTAN program), and so on, but Spartans are never actually mentioned in-series, aside from semi-canonical references to Master Chief in the first episode and some of the PS As.
- On a similar note, the aliens are pretty strongly hinted to be the Covenant, with their worship of ancient technology, the war with the UNSC ending around the time of the switch to Halo 3 machinima, etc. But they're only ever called "the aliens" in the show (except, again, in the first episode and some PS As).
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko's mother was banished for committing "treasonous acts", however it's never stated what these acts were. Coincidentally, she was banished right around the time Fire Lord Azulon died. It was widely believed amongst the fanbase that she was responsible for his death until it was finally confirmed to be the case in Season 3.
- Someone on the fan list for Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers (where several of the show's writers lurk) brought up the disturbing possibility that the Queen didn't put Zachary in the Psychocrypt right after his capture, but decided to take out some frustrations on him first, especially since the scene where she's standing over his unconscious body was dripping with some disturbing Foe Yay. One of the writers delurked to admit that the writers themselves had very off-color speculations about Her Majesty's sex life. It's about a 50-50 split in the fandom whether she "just" used Mind Rape, or went for something more... inappropriate for an animated show.
- Adventure Time's has the very popular theory that Princess Bubblegum and Marceline used to date. Word of God has gone back and forth on this one, and the writers try to sneak in as much subtext as they can.
- The fact that Adventure Time's Ooo is supposed to be our world After the End when The Magic Comes Back was this until fan-favourite episode "I Remember You" in season four made it explicitly clear, where we see Marceline's childhood with Parental Substitute Simon Petrikov (before he fully became the Ice King). After this episode, the show isn't shy about discussing this piece of trivia.
- Gravity Falls and Rick and Morty are made by different companies for different demographics, but both have characters (Ford and Rick) who travel between dimensions, with implications that they've been to the same dimensions and/or met. (For example...) GF creator Alex Hirsch has implied that these references were meant more as jokes, but you can find plenty of fanart and fanfics that take the concept seriously.