The structure of the novel I'm working on is a bit complicated. There are three storylines set in different decades. Each storyline progresses chronologically, but chapters from the three stories are interspersed so that the reader jumps back and forth in time. The storylines also have three different narrators who are from different generations of the same family. This means that the narrators appear as older or younger characters in the other storylines. As you might guess from this description of the structure, the novel focuses on information that the characters don't know or misunderstand about the other generations and ways in which perceptions of the past differ from what really occurred.
It's a lot to keep track of. A while back, I created a poster-sized document I call the Secrets Chart to help me visualize it all. As the writer, I have a good enough grasp of what's the truth and who knows what, but crafting this novel has involved making and remaking many decisions about how best to share the knowledge with the reader. Hint at a secret that's been kept from a narrator, and in the next chapter show the relevant event happening in his father's life? Or play out the incident first and later let the reader understand what the son is confused about? I can often make an argument for ordering the scenes in either direction, and it's rarely been obvious which will be most interesting for the reader.
The reader is the most important element, and I've discovered that sometimes I've lost sight of this. I'm very conscious of the secrets that the characters have from one another. But occasionally I forget that even if all the characters in a scene know the same information, something might remain secret if I haven't yet let the reader in on the details. There are lots of good reasons to conceal facts from the reader, of course, but too often I fall into the trap of doing this poorly. If the best part of a scene is the tension as the characters try to avoid bringing up the elephant in the room, the effect is lost if the reader hasn't seen the elephant.
This is one of those manuscript problems that's very hard for a writer to notice about their own work. After all, if I'd realized this is what I was doing, I wouldn't have done it. Fortunately, it's among the easier problems for even a casual critiquer to notice. I always ask my early readers to tell me about places that they were confused, and that clues me in to the spots where I've left out necessary information without meaning to.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ The Millions compares U.S. and U.K. covers of the same books.