Monday, September 29, 2014

1001 Ways to Wreck a Story - Part Seven

 Nancy tells us about one of her writing pet peeves:

The I-Know-But-I'm-Not-Going-To-Tell-You Story


A big part of writing is structuring the flow of information, managing what should be withheld, and when it should be revealed. If you want to surprise your reader with a plot twist at the end, or if there's a mystery that your protagonist must solve, it requires a thoughtful, planned release of facts, feelings, insights, discoveries, motivations, actions. However, this isn't the same as being vague.


The Problem

Some inexperienced writers misinterpret the process of withholding information by making everything elusive. They think this will increase the aura of mystery or suspense. Aspects of the plot are ambiguously hinted at, but for reasons that aren't necessary they are kept from the reader. This is a good way to wreck your story
 Perhaps a protagonist has a superpower that came on suddenly late in life. The narrative is about how it has affected her: she's isolating herself, feeling a bit crazy, running away from the world because she finds people's interest in her too oppressive, but the author doesn't tell us what her power is.  Instead it says vague things like, "Her ability heightened everything, but also set her apart." "She began to avoid situations where her powers would be needed."

Even if you think you have a good reason for not telling your reader, it's probably not good enough. Because when we are aware that crucial facts are being withheld it takes us out of the story. We think about why the author isn't being forthcoming instead of being wrapped up in the narrative. 


The Fix

Be specific about any information that is given to the reader. If you don't want us to worry about something we can't know yet, don't tell us it exists or tells us part of the truth. We can deal with incomplete information if we are given enough concrete details all the way along.

Here are two ways to deal with the above example:
  1. Let us know early on what her power is. This can be incomplete, but it must be specific. We learn that she hears people's thoughts, but--if this advances your plot--won't find out until later that she can intercede in what she overhears.
  2. Don't mention the fact that she has a superpower until you're ready for that information to come out. This option is harder to pull off than the first, because you don't want your reader to feel tricked, but it can work as long as the clues you put in all along are specific. She seems crazy, as if she's hallucinating. Late in the story we realize this is not mental illness, but an explained--though unexpected--superpower.
You want wonder in your story. But that should be wonder as in "awe," not as in "I wonder why the author is keeping things from me," or even worse: "I wonder what I should be doing instead of reading this story."

To keep your story a page-turner instead of a head-scratcher, root out vagueness.

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