Thinking about withholding information


I’ve been cracking away, almost half-heartedly, on at least one blog for the week to no avail. There were several long days at work and a traffic-jam this week, which combined with pi-day party preparations, have conspired against my ability to focus. It’s not just the blog I’m struggling to write-up, it’s also the chapter I’m working on. After having gotten a first version drafted last Sunday, I really thought that it would make the re-write easier. So far, no luck. Last night, I got down about 700 words to open, which is the 3rd or 4th time this week that I’ve re-written that part. I think it works okay, but I’m still not satisfied. The only way to get through this is likely to be a bit of rubber-ducking, and so here it goes.

Here’s the situation: The chapter opens up after the main character has managed to seize a small fleet of ships by boarding the lead ship which happens to have the rival lord aboard. After some ‘negotiation’ the other lord has agreed to join forces the main character. Whether or not the defection is a true change of allegiance is an open question. So, the main character, unable to sleep, is standing on the poop deck*, considering the next steps in his plan, which is to first re-claim his own lands, before pushing south, and taking over other islands, eventually leading to the capture of the entire kingdom. He’s essentially doing this on a shoe-string. To this point, the reader has been led to believe one thing about how he’s going to do it, but it’s really only part of the picture. This chapter contains the big reveal about the way he’s really going to achieve his goals with apparently so few resources. I want this to be a shock, and also become a major point of contention between the main character and the rival.

The questions from the stumped writer (me):
I can’t work out why this isn’t sitting well with me. Do you think I’m being overly critical of myself? Can I just go with the intro I’ve written? What do you think is wrong with it?

The answer from the reviewer (me):
It’s possible you’re being somewhat overly critical, but it’s true the voice of this chapter doesn’t match the previous chapters, and as a result it doesn’t read quite as well. The sub-plot you’re working on now is arguably the best written part of the book, even this early on in the revision process. This is largely the result of strong characters, backed by clearly defined goals, solid dialogue and setting to tie it together. You don’t have that going for you at the beginning of this chapter. The objective of the chapter isn’t clear at the outset, you only have a single character involved and he’s not doing much. It also happens that the chapter follows a reasonably intense fight scene. Given that the strength of the sub-plot comes from it’s solid characters, you need to try and stick to that, it works well. If you could bring another character into the opening scene, you could use those character dynamics found in previous chapters to improve the flow of the story. Keep in mind as you open this chapter that you want to establish the goal of the characters as quickly as possible, it should help things remain focused as the plot progresses. This doesn’t mean that the end of the chapter needs to be obvious at the beginning, just that your character has a goal. Whether or not he reaches it depends on where you’re headed. The other piece of the problem, and this requires more in-depth discussion, is that your holding back essential information. It’s one of the things that weakens your characters in the main plot of the story.

The problem of holding back is what happens at the far end of the information dump spectrum. At one end, you’re supplying too much information up front at the cost of good story telling. Holding back falls at the other end, where you’ve held back too much information at the cost of good story telling. If you’re holding back too much information from the reader, you’re likely to have a Scooby-Doo** moment somewhere in the end. This, I think, is true even for a mystery novel. There is an art to knowing when and how much information to give. The only viable general advice is that you do what works for your story, however it’s not always clear what makes for plausible situations and good reading. Before making those very specific decisions though, the starting point should be that you only hold back information that isn’t or can’t be known by the character***. I’m not talking about information that isn’t relevant to a scene, would come out better later on, could be left out altogether, or needs to be explained to the perspective character, but a piece of information that is a key driving force in character motivation or plot. There are more circumstances than you could count on how this bit of advice is wrong, but thinking about the situation in question, this is a matter of holding back information in a way that makes natural and plausible character actions difficult. It’s too central to character motivation and plot. Looking backward at the sub-plot it’s clear you haven’t done enough to set this chapter up, and so it doesn’t flow from the previous one. Yes, the outcome of the previous chapter is an unexpected twist, but that works. It may seem like a difficult task to set up unexpected circumstances ahead of time, but in this case it’s a matter of character motivation. They should be acting in a manner consistent with their previous actions and motivation. Very little will need to be done in order to make it right, a few strategic sentences here and there. It doesn’t have to fully give away the bit of information you wanted to hold back. In fact, if done carefully, and kept to a minimum, you can keep this key bit of information obscure. The reason to do this is, in part, to prevent out of place information dumping and ensure that early scenes remained focused. If this is the right direction for the story, the way to achieve the desired effect is through the use of creative dialogue, and slight mis-direction. The context might lead the reader to either gloss over the hint, or assume it relates to something else. Then, later in the story, as that little bit of held-back information comes to light for the reader, the context for those little hints should come into focus. To make it work, a lot of subtlety is involved, and not all readers are likely to catch it, which is probably fine.

With my question to myself answered, here’s my solution: I’m going to start again, bring in a character who would be interested in the ‘what next’ of the plan, and write it as though the held-back information had not been not held back. It means I’ll need to go back to previous chapters and work it in, but I don’t think that’s going to be a huge challenge, just a bit of work.

*The level above and behind the quarter-deck. The quarter deck is the place where the ships wheel is and operations are generally commanded from.
** Scooby-doo moment is the moment where the villain is finally captured and unmasked, and it’s a complete surprise that no one expected Mister ….. they all exclaim, and insert the scooby version of wha?.
*** This is true for first person, and third person limited, but I think it’s a bit more flexible in third-person omniscient, where some of the suspense is going to come from the reader seeing what’s coming, but the characters do not.

photo credit: Proof reading the thesis – this IS gonna take long via photopin (license)


4 thoughts on “Thinking about withholding information

  1. Is there a way to string this along, or introduce hints of the Big Plan sooner? The problem I’d see (and I know nothing about the book except what you’ve disclosed here) is that it’s just a chunk of information without suspense. So my suggestion would be to create suspense by giving hints but let the readers try to figure out for themselves what the plan is. Then the MC just does what they do and the surprise is maintained yet events are logical when you look back at them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s what I would do too, write as if I already made the change.


  3. It sounds like you’ve identified both the problem and the solution. Opening sequences are so important- so much pressure to capture the reader right from the start. Not many genres allow for long sequences right off the bat. I might suggest someone read just the first fee pages and ask for feedback- do they understand what’s at stake? Who the protagonist is and what they need? How is the hook? How is the pacing? I’ve had the same issues- most with my first novel (still working on that fist chapter ). Subsequent novels are easier- maybe because I get what’s at stake. Good luck with this- all writers understand your delemma.

    Liked by 1 person

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