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Author Topic: When the reader knows more than the main character...
ChrisOwens
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Does anyone else experience this? The reader will come to the conclusion way before the main VPC. I picture them stopping and saying, ‘Why doesn’t he see this?’

Of course, it’s an inability on my part. That is, not being able to fully put the reader into the character’s head and emphasize. So that the reader can say, ‘Oh I see they are too (tired, groggy, amnesiac, naïve, manipulated) and if I were in their place it probably would happen to me’.

I guess how I write myself in a corner in the first place is exposition. So far I have made characters that start off with no more knowledge than the everyday person. Then the character goes on to discover the extraordinary, easing the reader into it. With fiction versus SF&F, this would be invisible.


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NewsBys
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I worry about that sort of thing too, but I remind myself that the conclusion might just seem obvious to me, because I am the writer. The readers might not think it at all.

How have reviewers commented on it?


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Sometimes it's cool to have the readers figure things out before the main character does. The trick is to do it in such a way that the reader doesn't think the main character is stupid.

Point of view has a lot to do with it. If you show the reader things that the main character doesn't see, of course the reader is going to know things the main character doesn't know. But the reason you do this is because you want the reader to be more interested in watching the main character figure things out.

One example of this is along the lines of "How does Columbo out-think the bad guy?" instead of "who done it?" since, in the Columbo stories, we already know who the bad guy is.


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Robyn_Hood
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Properly done, the issue is moot.

I have read books and stories where I have "figured it out" before the main character. If it felt too easy and I find myself talking to the pages saying, "Why can't you see this?!" I will end up putting it down before the end and never finish reading it. If the characters are compelling and real and are behaving naturally within the story, then I will likely continue to read, regardless of whether I know what is about to happen.

Also, when it is written well, I will continue to read just to make sure I have it right. If the writing is lacking, I just get mad at the author for giving me the runaround.

The only way to really know what readers think is to ask them.


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ChrisOwens
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NewsBys,

Yep. In fact, I think you pointed one instance out. Since you've read some of my stuff I'll impart a few instances:

(1) Panning For Bigfoot: I reworked the character yet again to give him a motivation like you recommended.

However the reader will come to the conclusion that Dan is a Sasquatch long before the character it himself. The reason, he's pretty much of of it. He just woke up from his transformation back to human. Too, he doesn't want to see it.

(2) A Weatherman's Best Friend
The fresh-from-the-coma empath senses a great mind on the horizon, coming with the storm. Many have commented that they realize that the mind is the storm, well before the character. It's no big surprise, but why can't the character see it?

(3) The Man Without Dreams
In my WIP novel, the main character is manipulated. Drugs combined with hypnosis at the outset. In the second chapter, from the bad guy's POV it is dropped in. But then later on when the main character "hops" from plane to plane, he keeps experiencing a 'dream stupor'. Just as when we might have an amazing dream, then a minute after waking, can't remember it to save our lives. It's only halfway through the novel that he finally gets any sort of mastery and finds out what's going on.


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NewsBys
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I think that even though we might figure it out sooner, we still like to be proved right. Then we get the satisfaction of having figured it out, and having it confirmed. Makes us feel smart. Who doesn't want to feel smart?

I guess the real issue is knowing when to reveal the solution/conclusion. You don't want to delay it too long and make the character seem particularly dense.

Are characters with mental impairments (caused by fevers, comas, drugs) becoming a trend in your work? Each of the characters you mentioned, seem to have some sort of stupor or mental fog. Ask yourself why you gave them these attributes? Was it to intentionally keep them in the dark, so you could reveal the surprises at the end of the stories? Are the "big reveals" that important? Could you reveal them sooner and still have a great story?

For example, M. Night Shamalan often has films with "big reveals". But in The Village, he revealed the secret early. It did not ruin the story for me, by then I was hooked on the characters and what they wanted to accomplish.

Could that work for your stories?


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ccwritergal
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My first novel was mystery/suspense and had several situations like yours.

One solution that I found (I call it the "train wreck")is to give the character a short-term goal to motivate him and keep him sufficiently distracted (train track 1).

Meanwhile, the thing the reader is clued in on that the character doesn't yet notice is barrelling toward him (train track 2). This way, the character doesn't look like an idiot for not seeing the thing coming, and you get built-in tension and pacing to boot as the two "tracks" converge.

Hope this helps.


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NewsBys
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I like that advice ccwritergal! Makes sense and adds dimension too.
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Elan
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And then you get readers, like me, who can never figure it out until it's exposed in the book. I don't know; I think I just get swept up in the story and I'm not trying to figure out the mystery, I'm just trying to get to the end of the story.

Maybe this is some sort of deficiency. I've always said I'm a comic's best audience. I can never remember a punchline to a joke, so I'm a fresh audience every time I hear one.

It makes me nervous with my own writing - am I too transparent with my own stuff cause I am dumber than a wedge when it comes to plot line premonition? We'll just have to see!

And, as a totally irrelevant aside, I just got back from lunch, where I won a free coffee because I knew the answer to their "Question of the Day" which was: What is the title of the first book in the Narnia series. The waitresses commented about what a stumper that question was. Am I a total geek because I knew instantly it was "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe?"


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Rikku_Harding
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{Edit: I'm not sure if you can really tell which book was first. If you mean chronologically, then "Lion...,", but if you mean which is supposed to come first it might be that one about how the wardrobe came to be. But congrats, anyway!}

I know exactly what you're talking about. There are two ends to the spectrum:

A-Tooo much description so the reader knows more than main character
|
|
B-Too little information so no one even knows
what's going on

It's all a matter of T&E. People will point it out to you if you as them. But sometimes A and B can be good. You might know what is going to happen (Chicago, the hometown of the main character will get blown up) but you wonder how the main character will react.

Another thing that was taught to me was that you shouldn't dabble in what you don't know. If you've never--and I'm not accusing you--had a mentally ill sibling, a comatose sibling, a siblnig who died, etc., then you shouldn't write about it. It might get someone really mad at you.

[This message has been edited by Rikku_Harding (edited May 06, 2005).]


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Jeraliey
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I'm inclined to disagree, Rikku. I think as long as you do your research and treat stuff like that with as much gravity as is due, then people have no right to take offense. It's important to include things like that in your story if they're a part of your story, and avoiding them just weakens your writing. Even if you have no primary experience, secondary can be quite effective.

...and I don't know if you should really be writing your stories with an eye to what might make people "mad". Tell your stories the way they happen.

[This message has been edited by Jeraliey (edited May 07, 2005).]


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MaryRobinette
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Gee. I guess I'd better go delete my story about the Radioactive Ninjas on Mars, cause I've never been radioactive.
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wbriggs
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In addition to other, excellent comments . . . I'm annoyed as a reader when the POV character doesn't see what I see because I know he's in a story and he doesn't, and I'm recognizing a cliche.

Probably the best solution is to make a less cliched plot -- or have the character recognize the cliche and keep going.

BTW this is all WAY better than having the reader say, continually, "What the heck is going on and why won't the POV character tell me?"


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TaShaJaRo
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It’s funny you mention this now because I’m about halfway through False Memory by Dean Koontz and it does this very thing. It’s a psychological thriller and uses some of the same aspects you mentioned in your Man Without Dreams story.

It makes it ten times more tense reading the story now, because I know who the enemy is and the main characters don’t. It was revealed to me when the main characters were not present; it would not have been natural for them to be present. I don’t think they’re stupid for not figuring it out because they don’t have all the information and there is no reason for them to have all that information.

You also have to realize that characters in a story ARE going to act like characters in a story. If every character behaved like a writer and analyzed everything that happened to them from a writer’s perspective (“What is the most F’d up twist that could happen right now? Ok, I’m going to behave like that is what is going on.”), well, that would not be very interesting reading, would it? Nothing would ever happen to him because he’d be like some omniscient god always predicting the future and avoiding all catastrophes.

As a reader, it’s easy to figure stuff out sometimes because we know there is a good chance the writer will throw in some twist, so we expect it. We anticipate it. Characters don’t, any more than we do in our own natural lives.

So you need to analyze the comments you’ve received and decide whether they are valid for your characters in their situations. People in the midst of a tense/emotional situation do not always see the twist coming. They also do not naturally anticipate that the person they trust or love will betray them. If we all lived our lives thinking only as writers then we’d all be agoraphobic. Your characters are no different.


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MaryRobinette
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There's a book called "How to Write Killer Fiction," which is much better than the title suggests. The author goes into a lot of detail about the difference between a mystery and a thriller. In a mystery the reader has to be behind the protagonist in understanding what's happening. In a thriller they have to be ahead of the protagonist, because it builds tension.

One of the other things she talks about is withholding information, and how it's important to mask information rather than not tell it. In other words, when you read the book the second time, all the clues have to be there. There have to be enough red herrings to throw a reader off, so they don't notice the one crucial bit.


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Rikku_Harding
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Truth be told...I hated that piece of advice, so I never use it. Um...hee hee..
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wbriggs
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Sometimes knowing more than the POV character is an asset. Suspense: you know the bomb's about to go off, but the POV character is oblivious. Or, unreliable narrator: he thinks he's God; you know he's a jerk. Or even a bit of irony. You know Pandora's box is full of nasty things. She's about to open it. The story could end there, with her happy, but you knowing full well disaster is about to strike.
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rickfisher
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Something in all of the above simply wasn't crystal clear to me. My question is: Do you really feel the problem is that the character is slow to realize something (so the reader feels the character is stupid), or is it that the reader realizes it early, and hence is not surprised? Pretty much all the discussion has been on the former, but I just want to make sure you realize that the two are not the same problem.
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