Writing Advice: Don’t Hide Information

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Photo by António Palha on Unsplash

Writing advice is never absolute. It often changes with circumstances and sometimes, like now, it’s a straight up contradiction. Of course you’re going to hide information. If the reader already knows what will happen, there’s no incentive to keep reading.

Even when the reader expects the ending, like with a romance novel, there’s still some ‘mystery’ or question that needs to be answered. We read along to find out how the story unfolds. The skill of a great writer is to pace the information out as needed to keep the story going and the reader engaged.

What you don’t want to do is make it feel like you’re withholding information. When this happens, and the reader learns what’s happening in a word dump at the end of the story, they will feel cheated.

You also don’t want the reader to feel as if you’re finagling the plot. If the reader can feel the writer’s presence, it takes them out of the story. Once the reader is out of the story, you end up either mildly annoying them or losing them altogether.

The key is to make it feel organic. It needs to unfold in a natural way. Consider the following.

Make sure you have the right viewpoint character.

I like to relay information as my viewpoint character either experiences the situation, thinks about what’s going on, or associates a memory with the present.

In order to do this, you have to pick the correct character to tell the story. If your viewpoint character knows what’s going on, then so should your reader. If you’re trying to hide information, then your viewpoint character should be the last to find out about it.

Give hints.

Have you ever read a book where the main character remembers something out of the blue that they ends up being important. It’s annoying, right? This is an example where the writer hid the reveal. Had they given a hint earlier, the reader wouldn’t feel cheated.

For example, in Amazon’s Wheel of Time, they hid Rand’s father talking about how he found him as an infant. Rand knew this throughout the whole journey. In the book, it was a constant worry. However, the show didn’t reveal it until near the end. It felt very heavy handed. You could tell they purposefully withheld this information so people wouldn’t guess who was the dragon reborn.

The idea is to camouflage the information, but not to the point it’s undiscernible or absent. Hint at the information in a way that makes it feel unimportant.

I remember the first time I saw The Sixth Sense. The big reveal was a shocker, but when I looked back through the movie, there were so many tiny reveals. The ending not only made sense, but there was a feeling of ‘of course’.

Red Herring

In addition to giving hints, you can also offer misdirection. In The Sixth Sense example, Bruce Willis’ character wasn’t scary whereas the other ghosts we saw up to that point were. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about his appearance or behavior that suggested he was something other than what he said he was.

Be careful with this tool if the red herring is too convincing, it could feel like a bait and switch. A little bit of salt goes a long way, so do red herrings.

Pick a different mystery.

It’s okay to change your story. Not everything you envision in the initial stages of writing will stick. Sometimes, the more you think and turn it over, plot holes emerge. Be careful not to skip over the holes thinking they’ll work themselves out. Big reveals at the end don’t fix everything.

If you have too many holes to fill or if your mystery only works if you withhold information, then chances are you need to change something up.

Question whether you need a mystery to tell the story. Think about what other paths you could take to get to the same ending destination.

Let your characters lead the way.

In my opinion, most stories should be character driven. This doesn’t mean it has to follow the feelings of a character. Not every story will be touchy-feely. What I mean is that your characters should be making decisions and taking action. Even if something out of the character’s control happens to them, they still chose how to react to it. Those decisions and actions should drive the plot.

Ben has a flat tire. He can either change it, call roadside assistance, or call a friend. Each choice could be the start of three different stories. The trick is to show what’s going on and why the choice was made. You want to try to keep your reader from making unwanted assumptions. If they assume the wrong thing, it could impact how they view the rest of the story.

For example. Ben decides to call roadside assistance. We may assume he doesn’t know anything about cars. Then when he gets home, he goes out to the garage to work on restoring an antique Camaro. It could feel like a disconnect if we don’t know he just left a wedding and was in a rented suit he didn’t want to get messed up.

Don’t get caught up with wanting to give the reader a certain reaction. Surprise endings are fun, but be careful that you try so hard, it falls flat. Flesh out your characters and trust them to tell their story.

What did I miss? Do you have any other tips to add?

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