Secrets and revelations in stories
One problem writers often struggle with is how much information to divulge to the reader at various places in a story. I’m not referring only to descriptions, but also to story information. You don’t want to overload–or bore–the reader with endless detail, yet you don’t want your reader confused or frustrated with the lack of information. Or, worse, you don’t want you reader to make wrong assumptions about the story.
In a good mystery, the last thing the author wants is for his readers to guess the ending or figure out whodunit too quickly–he’ll get ripped apart in his reviews. The author has to drop clues and hints along the way so that the ending makes perfect sense, but only the most astute readers will figure it out. If he leaves too much until the end or makes the clues so obscure that the reader misses them completely, then the ending will feel forced or as if it came out of nowhere. This principle applies to any story, mystery or not, that has revelations. A good surprise ending follows logically from the story, but the reader won’t see it coming.
Some new writers confuse the withholding of information with creating mystery and suspense. For example, not revealing the name of your main character right away–unless you have a good story not to–isn’t in your best interest because your reader wants to be grounded and invested in your character. I knew at least one writer who seemed to believe that keeping as much information from the reader as possible was a good way to build suspense.
I was reminded of these principles recently when I had the opportunity to critique a first-person story from one of my writer friends. I don’t mean to insult or embarrass my friend (who shall remain unnamed in any case). The story and its concept were brilliant, and the writing itself was excellent. The problems came in how he dispensed (or didn’t) information for the reader.
The story opens with a dialog between a man (unnamed until much later) and a woman (Carol) who are having a drink together. The dialog is superb and fraught with innuendo. “I know you hate me,” she says. “But it’s not worth dying for.” Their meeting is a clandestine one, and this has happened apparently every year at this time. The person they’re hiding their meeting from is the man’s brother.
The first information missing in the opening paragraphs was the setting. It wasn’t established quickly enough, and I found find no reason for not doing so. It would have grounded me as a reader. The carnival, as described could have been Mardi Gras. But, it isn’t. In truth this takes place in a town in England, and it’s at least several decades in the future. Nothing in the story clues us to this until much later. We also learn that the man and woman are married, but separated for many years, and she’s with his brother now. But there’s one more slanted surprise the author delivers at the end of the first scene. The man says, “And once I breach the Chronal Barrier, we’ll have all the time in the world.” It’s a sci-fi story. Whoa!
All through the scene we’ve been led to believe that the only danger to them was discovery by Trevor (probably the “not worth dying for” reference). Needless to say, I had already gotten confused after the first scene and indeed had to re-read it several times trying to figure out if I’d missed something.
After several more somewhat confusing scenes–and about halfway through the story–things begin to fall into place and make sense. Even then, I had to read the story again from the beginning to see how everything fit together. In all fairness to the author, most of the story pieces were there, just not where they all should have been. The author was attempting to hide information from the reader so it could be revealed a little at a time, but he did it too much. No doubt he felt that the reader would see it all by the end of the story. But the danger here is that some readers, being confused so much at the start, might not finish it. The author did share that he’d submitted this story to a number of magazines, all but one of whom had rejected it outright. The one who didn’t reject it initially, probably looked it more critically and saw the good points in it, but rejected it in the end.
Despite its flaws, it’s an excellent story and the pay off at the end makes the piece well worth reading. Once the author fixes the problems, he should have no trouble getting it accepted somewhere.
From the previous posts here on openings, I recommended the importance of establishing the setting up front. You don’t need a lot of detail. In fact, this particular story worked well because the author chose not to interrupt the narrative with a lot of descriptive details–but he went a bit too far the other way. For example, a simple opening header of “(city), (country), (year)” would have made a huge difference. It would have set the place and told the reader it was a futuristic story.
One reason I can speak to this topic of secrets and revelations comes from a personal writing experience I had many years back. I’d written a sci-fi novella about a character who was an intergalactic hit man with the capability of destroying entire worlds and who had just been commissioned to do so for one planet proving trouble to a corrupt political leader. A second story thread was about an orphan boy and his brother and their life on that to-be-eliminated planet.
I alternated the story lines between the man and the boy, and two-thirds of the way through revealed that the boy and the hit man were one in the same, with the parallel narratives running about ten years apart, thus giving the reader a surprise. I’d let the reader believe the two stories were concurrent and went to length to ensure I didn’t give away the secret prematurely.
Throughout the narrative, the reader was left to assume that these two stories were somehow related, but had no clue how they were. In retrospect, the story was okay, but it had definite issues and weaknesses. I was reveling so much in my cleverness that I lost sight of whether I was telling a strong, compelling story. Of course, this was in my early days of my serious writing. Another problem I ran into was timing the two story lines so they would converge properly. Since I had more of the boy’s story than the man’s story, it wasn’t coming out even–another sign of trouble when you have to force things.
In the course of discussing the story with one of my friends, he suggested that I reveal early on how the boy and the man were related. As I thought about it, I realized that this solved multiple problems. I no longer had to worry about keeping the stories in perfect parallel, and I didn’t have to worry about keeping the secret (I currently reveal the connection in chapter 3). Further, this change made the story much stronger. Instead of the reader wondering about the relation between the boy and the man, he was presented with a different question: How did this orphan boy with little promise of a significant future become this feared hit man? This changed the novel into a more character-driven, dynamic one and presented new opportunities for plot development.
The astute among you may guess that the opening to this novel was in my blog post Openings-3. It’s the untitled one that begins with the orphanboy Dreyon on the streets of Kunego City. (Yes, I do plan to finish and publish this novel in the near future.)
The lesson to learn here is that revealing information, instead of keeping it hidden, can sometimes work to a writer’s advantage by changing the story question to a more powerful one.
Be careful what information you withhold and how you withhold it. A well-written story will leave clues behind, but those clues should not be so obscure as to be utterly impossible to discern. Keeping your reader guessing (which may be desirable) is not the same as deliberately misleading him or omitting information he needs to understand what’s going on.
You, as the writer, control what your reader sees and some of what he believes. You want him to appreciate and praise your cleverness, not shake his fist from feeling cheated or frustrated. There is a book on writing titled A Story is a Promise. Promise your reader a great story from the beginning, and don’t break that promise at any point.
[Scott comments: This is why it is always better to have another set of eyes look at your story. A test reader can pick up on problems better than you can as the author.]
I totally agree with Scott on that. Having beta readers go over your story will help you avoid mistakes of omission and what should have been revealed sooner and what secrets should not have been kept.
One thought on “Secrets and revelations in stories”
Rick, I like the idea of revealing information, and allowing the story to blossom from there, instead of concealing information and trying for some weird twist that makes the reader feel cheated. Great article!