February 8, 2011

What the Reader Knows

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.

→ A few of my loyal blog readers have asked how to use Google Reader to keep track of posts. Here's a clear, step-by-step introduction from the School Lunch Project and some more details from CNET.


Anonymous said...

This post reminds me that I need at some point to write my rant about Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear, which I read over winter break. Actually, what I read was three (if you count those two as the single book they were intended to be) of her books back-to-back, which is a great way to make yourself hyperaware of an author's tics and tendencies -- the same thing happened to me when I was gifted with the complete works of Guy Gavriel Kay a bunch of years ago. Anyway, the reason I mention it is because one of Connie WIllis's tendencies is to overuse the device of the viewpoint character jumping to a wrong conclusion based on partial information. Sometimes this is set up for comic effect, i.e. the reader is presumably supposed to know that the character doesn't know something. Other times the point seems to be to have the reader believe the character's wrong assumption, e.g. it's the setup for a dramatic reveal later. In a couple of the books she also plays with multiple viewpoint characters who have different sets of information, thus letting her do the thing you're talking about, of letting the reader in on information (in Character A's chapter) that Character B in the next chapter doesn't know.

In answer to your actual (non-)question, I agree that both can be pleasurable for the reader: having a mystery that is made clear later (with or without the dropping of hints so the reader can figure it out), or knowing the secret that a character doesn't, and thus being able to see where the character's interpretation of things is misguided. I think the latter carries more risk of being either not so exciting or irritating, if done clumsily or too often. On the other hand, mysteries carry the risk of seeming stupid or forced -- in the "why couldn't they figure it out?" or "why didn't X just tell Y the truth/why didn't Y just ask?" sense.

Anna Scott Graham said...

Great post! Such a line to keep what needs to be concealed as such against what characters know, etc. My problem comes if something pops in the middle of the novel, and then it's a matter of well, is A supposed to know this or only B, or just Q who seems to have arrived through the wall... What good revising sorts, even if it feels like tearing my hair out! :)

Lisa Eckstein said...

desireearmfeldt, you point out many of the common pitfalls with writing these scenarios -- pitfalls that I try to avoid but sometimes still get stuck in. "Why didn't X just tell Y?" is one of those things that irritates me as a reader or viewer (it seems to occur a lot in movies), but I can sympathize with how hard it can be to come up with a satisfying explanation for why the secret required by the plot was in fact kept secret.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Anna, to make things even more complicated, in the process of revising, I've made major changes regarding which characters know which secrets. It's a wonder I have any hair left!

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