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Author Topic: What should the reader know?
Symphonyofnames
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One of my problems in writing is that I tend to keep the reader in the dark about some things. I've heard that tension is caused through what the main character does or doesn't know rather than raising a lot of questions or keeping back information from the reader. How much should the reader know? When should a writer tell the reader everything that's happening and when should a writer hold back a surprise?
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extrinsic
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Tension in story is a function of a reader's alignment with the protagonist's predicament and doubtful but purposeful pursuit of a desirable outcome of the predicament. Causation and antagonism are the axes of a story's plot that drive the tension axis.

The first causal circumstance that sets a plot in motion is where the reader becomes aware of the protagonist's predicament, often when the protagonist becomes aware of the predicament also, but not necessarily so.

The inciting moment is when the motivating forces of antagonism come into play and when the protagonist first seeks to address the predicament. Tension begins to rise with the inciting moment. The forces of antagonism can be in opposition or parallel with the protagonist's purpose as related to the predicament.

The predicament and what the protagonist is doing about it is what a reader needs to know, not much else is essential beyond the outcome being in doubt through to the climax, and that the predicament be satisfactoriy resolved for good or ill, successful or failed accomplishment of the desire derived from the predicament.


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InarticulateBabbler
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There's an easy answer to "How much should the reader know?", and it's this:

What the PoV knows. If the PoV wouldn't naturally (or believably) be thinking of it, the reader shouldn't know. If the PoV is thinking about it (or would naturally be) you cheat the reader by not telling them.


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dee_boncci
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I would almost take what Inarticulatebabbler said one step further and say that if it is important to the story, whether or not the POV might think of it, the reader should know.

I've run across a few stories where a POV "remembers" something right at the climactic moment. The only time that worked for me as a reader was when it had been revealed earlier in the story, and I got to "remember" too.

I recently read a book, where a major character hatches and executes a very clever and involved plan to further his cause. The problem for me was that the book spent a fair amount of time in the guy's POV, detailing the outward deception facet of his plan, but his ultimate intentions were not revealed (the plan involved betrayal). Really ruined what could have been a good story. I believe that author would have been better served to stay out of that character's POV.


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rich
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John Gardner said a writer should not hide anything from the reader.

Of course, he wasn't much into crime novels, and he also said that a truly great writer MUST be a graduate of higher education. So take the above with as many grains of salt as necessary.

I'm inclined to agree with dee_boncci's take on it.


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Robert Nowall
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Well, the characters (and reader) should learn things in the course of the plot---the writer should know from the beginning.
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tchernabyelo
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My advice is don't cheat. Don't create false tension. Don't cut away just as the MC says "So, her's what we're going to do..."

This is used all too often in film and TV and it is a cheap, annoying method of creating tension in the viewer. It's also often used in short fiction, where a fact is "revealed" at the end that changes the tone of the story, but the only reason that fact was concealed was in order to get the "aha!" moment.


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Cheyne
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Robert:In a perfect world "the writer should know from the beginning"

Easier said than done, my friend. I am always being surprised by my charaters and what they do, say, and reveal. My current WIP has evolved from a short story idea into a novel that promises to be the first in a trilogy. I've got to stop letting my characters write the outline.


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rich
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I can only think of one time where I didn't mind the cutaway from, "Here's what we're going to do..."

Where Eagles Dare has a scene where Richard Burton tells Clint Eastwood, "You asked me why you were brought on this mission..." and the camera cuts away. (That's not an exact quote, by the way, but the gist is there.)

Yeah, it was a cheat, but I think it worked because we put ourselves in the Burton's character's hands, and we trusted that character to eventually explain the situation. It also helped that though there was a mystery, the action and suspense resulted more from the storming of the castle (so to speak) than the mystery of WHY they were storming the castle. It also helps that when we the viewer finally get the reveal, even the Eastwood character looks as surprised as the viewer. It's obvious Burton didn't tell Eastwood everything.

I guess that just means that there's always an exception to the rule. Hmmmmm. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd may be another one.


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Symphonyofnames
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All right, that helps out a lot, thanks everybody.

Cheyne, letting your characters drive can really do great things for a story. I think it was Stephen King who said that he starts off with characters and a situation and lets the characters steer the story.

dee_boncci, that seems to be the way my mind has been going as of late, good to hear it backed up.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I would like to submit that the characters should really only surprise the author during the first draft. After that, the author should know everything (or at least everything important) to make the story work.

Of course, if the story doesn't work after the first draft, then the author is going to have to fix it in the rewrites, but I don't think the characters can surprise the author all that much by then.


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MartinV
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In case you don't want to lie to the reader, I suggest you use a character's POV. That way the facts the character knows don't need to be true, he/she just thinks they are true. I used it to mask the true purpose of the antagonist this way.
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tchernabyelo
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It is possible to use a POV character who actively and deliberately DOES lie to the reader, as long as you make the story interesting (and the character likeable) enough. I'd quote Michael Marshall Smith's phenomenal "Only Forwards" as an example. But it's another insteance wher eyou really really have to know what you are doing to get away with it.
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