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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Keeping secrets from the reader (Page 2)

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Author Topic: Keeping secrets from the reader
tchernabyelo
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The situatoin being described reminds me a little of an old James Blich book - Jack of Eagles. In this, there's a "conversation" which has no attribution and is clearly Important and Mysterious (it has lines like "I have estanned the threshold" and "Let the finder beware"). It works because the MC is actually using his own (unrealised) psychic powers to eavesdrop on the conversation, and you later find out who was talking and what it meant. However, if the conversation in this instance has no directly link to the MC or any POV character, then it's going to have to be done fantastically well NOT to feel like cheating.

Like Beth, though, I haven't read the piece in question.


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RobertM
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Exactly, tchernabyelo. I can't say whether I'm up to it or not -- my readers will have to judge that (assuming the exchange makes it past the editors). Still, I think it can be effective.

In the story, by the way, the reader will catch on relatively quickly that there's a force opposing the protag's efforts. The reader will then recall the opening conversation and know that it was this opposition that was speaking, though the reader still won't know who exactly this opposition is. Near the end of the story, there will be two possibilities -- it was one of two possible antags who was speaking (with a co-conspirator). The protag will be just about to declare who he has decided was his opposition when that opposition will arrrive to announce itself. In the end, the protag will understand the opposition's reasons for opposing him and play along.

So, while one antag was the force opposing him and which foiled the protag's plans, we'll see that it was really the other, innocent antag who should be feared.

Make sense?


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wbriggs
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bump
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wbriggs
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bump

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wbriggs
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bump bump and away
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Spaceman
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Why are we bumping this if nobody is contributing since October? Just curious.
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yanos
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To save repition.
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Jessica
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Sorry, but what does bump mean?
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wbriggs
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I bump it when if I think I see something in F&F that intentionally keeps secrets from the reader, by someone who's new to the forum.

"bump" means "I'm moving this to page 1 again."


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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It might be a good idea to post a link to this topic in the topic that made you decide to "bump" this one, so that the people there will come and read what has been said here.
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wetwilly
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Here's an example of where deliberately withholding information from the reader that the POV character knew worked. Check that, it's an example of lying to the reader about information that the POV character knew, and it worked very well. Look at "Fight Club."

SPOILER ALERT!!!!!

Think about it. The fact that Tyler Durden is actually the narrator's other personality is a fairly crucial bit of information. One could argue that the narrator didn't realize it until the end of the story, whicvh is true, but the story opens with Tyler Durden and the narrator on the top floor of the skyscraper, Tyler Durden jamming a gun in the narrator's mouth. At that point, the narrator most certainly did know that Tyler Durden was just in his own head, but he doesn't give us that information. Instead he lies by describing Tyler as a seperate person who is accosting him, a deliberate lie to the reader. The only clue he gives us in that opening scene is one line: "I know this because Tyler knows this."

My point? The never lie to the reader rule is not a hard rule, just like all the other "rules" of writing. If you break it well, then you can break it at will.


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Zodiaxe
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With holding information adds to the suspense of the story, especially in the case of mystery and crime novels. However, as said before the clues are there. If one does not pay attention then why is that the author's fault.

I kinda of lied to the reader in my current work. The key word there is kinda... In chapter two, the investigator, the M.C., tells his sidekick... "All is not what it seems." In chapter six another character echoes that statement. In chapter five, the father of the victim tells the person investigating the case that the mother is out of town, she went back home to Rome.

Later on in the story as the reader is bouncing back and forth between the action sequences and wondering who is the really behind the conspiracy the "lie" hits them as the solution is played out in two seperate scenes 20 miles apart. In the first scene, one of the characters, the focus of the story, is brought to a safe house manned by several people who you are led to rightfully believe know about the conspiracy. One says to the others, "Where is Maximillius?" "He is back in Jerusalem tending to unfinished business," is the reply. "NO!" screams the first...blah blah blah "WHy are you so worried," is the reply... blah blah blah. And suddenly, the wife/mother who is supposed to be in Rome appears. She begins to recount her story then... stop... back to Jerusalem to Maximillius where the answer is revealed.

Did I lie when I set the reader up to assume that the wife went back to Rome? Some can argue yes, but I did state in chapters two and six that all is not what it seems. After chapter two, its reader beware. After chapter six, you've crossed the point of no return.

Whether or not you choose hold back information is up to you. Its your story and your world. However, you cannot hold back on the information forever, it has to comeout sooner or later, especially if its a part of the puzzle. If its a character flaw, a nervous twitch, a scar etc, there'e no reason why the reader has to know the story behind that if it has nothing to do with the story. I choose not to do that, I'll go to great lengths to ensure that the reader knows how to perceive the characters, they are after all mine and a part of me.

Peace,
Scott

[This message has been edited by Zodiaxe (edited January 18, 2006).]


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david2885
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I'm reminded of a certain movie...The Sixth Sense I think, where information was withheld from the audience until the end.
You know, that thing about Bruce Willis....

That seemed to work for that film.

Is there something different between film and books that makes it all right to keep secrets from audiences in film but frowned upon in writing?


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AeroB1033
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quote:
I'm reminded of a certain movie...The Sixth Sense I think, where information was withheld from the audience until the end.
You know, that thing about Bruce Willis....

That seemed to work for that film.

Is there something different between film and books that makes it all right to keep secrets from audiences in film but frowned upon in writing?


First, yes, it's different in books and film. You're never truly inside the character's head in a movie (or play, for that matter), so it's not nearly as deceitful to pull a trick like this in those mediums. It can still be really manipulative, though, depending on how it's done.

Second, The Sixth Sense wasn't being manipulative at all, in my opinion. Why? For the purposes of the film, we're looking at things mostly from Bruce Willis' viewpoint. And (spoilers here, if you haven't seen it) he doesn't have the slightest clue that he's dead, which is a fact that we're prepared for from very early on in the film. "They don't know they're dead", says Cole.

His realization comes at the same time as ours. So we don't feel cheated; instead, we feel the same rush of emotion as he does when he realizes and then accepts the fact that he's no longer for this life. Or at least, I did.

It's funny, because M. Night Shyamalan later proceeded to make one of the most stupidly manipulative and condescending films I've ever seen (The Village). Just goes to show, sometimes good storytellers don't really know why their stories do or do not work.


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Elan
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quote:
I'm reminded of a certain movie...The Sixth Sense I think, where information was withheld from the audience until the end.
You know, that thing about Bruce Willis....

Ah, but the truth wasn't, in fact, witheld from the audience. Clues clear as day were left throughout the movie. However, you had to be alert to pick them up. I'm totally gullible, so the ending surprised me, but upon re-watching the film I saw the clues everywhere. Not only does the boy tell Bruce Willis' character that "they don't know they are dead," but you begin noticing that no one interacts with him directly, that he doesn't interact with the environment (ie, he never moves the chair in the restaurant), and there is the fact that his being shot was never quite addressed after that scene.

No, withholding information from the reader is something different than laying down clever clues. Withholding information from us would have been like, say, finding out in the last scene that the MC is really an immortal alien who is invincible to gunshots. THAT sort of trickery is a cheat.


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januson
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stephen king, who i generally like as an author, has a big problem with keeping secrets from his readers, and often making it fairly obvious. for example, in the beginning of "bag of bones" we are told there's an unidentified item in the woman's drugstore bag, we're told it's important, and it's coyly referred to as (if i recall the wording correctly) "that other thing" more than once, but we do NOT get to know what it is until much later, when it's convenient for the story

another example, one that really pissed me off, was in "wolves of the calla" SPOILER AHEAD. the main characters see a drawing of one of the wolves and recognize something on its head (a little satellite dish) and know immediately how to defeat the wolves (by breaking those dishes directly) but they don't (or rather, king doesn't) tell us what it was they recognized, but we know it's important, we know they know, but we don't get to know until some 2 or 3 hundred pages later. and, this wasn't like a common thing, where one hero says to his band, "ok, here's the plan..." and lower the sound and fade out, cause that one works pretty well most of the time. it's more fun to see the plan at work than to hear about it ahead of time (unless it's played amusingly like in "iron eagle" with the lunchbox (yeah, i'm mixing film and novels, but it all comes from writing)). king has even used that one in his novels, they've got a plan but we don't get to hear it, but sometimes, it's a detail so specific and so obvious in its importance, he might as well just say outright, "dear constant reader, the lead characters now have the knowledge to solve everything, but you don't get to know it cause i just don't want to tell you" then he can stick out his tongue and make us feel like crap


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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A rule of thumb that may be helpful: if the crucial information is something that the reader would see easily in a filmed version of the scene, then the writer is cheating to not give that information to the reader. If it's something that wouldn't be seen, the writer can continue to be coy about it.

So the object in the woman's bag can stay secret because the filmed version could show by her actions how important the contents of the bag were to her without revealing those contents.

The satellite dish on the wolves' heads, especially since it was recognized by the characters (and even moreso if one of the ones who recognized it was the point of view character), should not be left out.

If what was on the wolves' heads was not recognized by the point of view character, at the least it should have been described, so that the reader might possibly recognize it (readers often enjoy being brought "in on something" that the point of view character doesn't know, and writers who do that can win readers thereby).

Writers who cheat by trying to hide something that would be obvious on film only irritate and annoy their readers.


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Lord Darkstorm
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I tend to disagree with one point. If the POV character knows something that is relevant to the story, but doesn't think about it or relay to the reader it's in their pocket...it annoys me when it comes out at the crucial moment. If I want a movie, I'll watch a movie, if I want to read a book, I want more than a movie. Otherwise I could just go watch a movie and forget the book.

Sorry, but I've been critting a story that uses many of the "tv" elements and it's driving me crazy. I find that movies should keep their tricks to themselves and let writers learn to write stories that are worth reading without needing movie style elements.

Tell the reader something important is on the viewpoint character, tell them what it is. You don't have to give all the details, but don't hide it. If the POV character knows, then it is wrong to keep important details from the reader.


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Survivor
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Let's call it a rule of thumb for people who aren't fully committed to good POV writing. I mean, if the writer had mastered POV all that well, then why would this question arise?
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Lord Darkstorm
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I guess your right, but if they aren't interested in learning how to use pov, I'd rather they not be encouraged to make a story that is essentially a bad tv show disguised as a real story. Encourage screenplay writing instead...I don't read those.


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kings_falcon
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Sophie's Choice is perhaps the best example of hiding the facts by a character whose "telling" the story without violating POV or the reader's trust.

Sophie tells her lover and thus the reader all about her heroism in the war. The problem is she's lying. Every word out of her mouth is a lie. The story works because Sophie is not the POV. The narrator Stingo is. As Stingo and Nathan learn the truth - that she is lieing - the reader learns it.

So an important peice of information is withheld. Sophie is a big fat liar but it is okay because we never get into Sophie's POV. If we did, the novel wouldn't have worked.

Edited to change a really badly worded sentance

[This message has been edited by kings_falcon (edited November 09, 2006).]


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Survivor
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I've always wondered how that "every word was a lie" thing. I mean, a single word, by itself, doesn't usually constitute a statement. Unless you're answering yes/no questions
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Lord Darkstorm
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I think the point that the readers is in a pov that doesn't know...then nothing is being hidden. The problem is usually that the pov character does know, and the author dangles the fact they know in front of you and in boiled down terms "I'm not telling you", and then thinks because they see it on tv all the time...it's ok. Or the really nice things they do that are supposed to raise tension...the rather improbably auto explosion in the rain, and the car explodes into flames when the front smashes the ground after falling over a cliff. Wow, where have we seen that happen....hmm, in movies, on the tv. I do wonder why we don't have ten times the deaths on the roads from one person smashing their car into the back end of a semi?

The problem with things on the tv and in movies, is that believability isn't the point of many of the shows. Big explosions are more valuable than believability. Where when we want to write, we have to find a way to make people want to believe what we are telling them. Lying to the reader, or hiding information, or even throwing in things that most of us won't believe in video, just won't work for me. I find most anime more believable than half the tv shows that come on...at least the anime writers seem to have a clue how to write a good story.

Oh well, as long as the editors don't start falling for it I should have many more years of books I'll be able to enjoy. If not, I have many years of good old fiction to enjoy.


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Ray
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I'll grant that many movies fall for the special effects; visually, if it looks cool, who cares about what's believable or not. However, even in movies, the audience still demands that it make sense. In all fiction, the audience has to have a sense of disbelief because it's all a lie, and sometimes that disbelief has to be larger than in other situations.

It's not realism that counts (most of us work in sci-fi and fantasy), what matters is that it makes sense. And to make sense, all we need is the evidence. The evidence, and what it means, at least to the POV character at the time.


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kings_falcon
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quote:
I've always wondered how that "every word was a lie" thing. I mean, a single word, by itself, doesn't usually constitute a statement. Unless you're answering yes/no questions.


Geez, Survivor. I'd hate to have you as an opposing counsel.


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Robert Nowall
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Appropos of the "everything is a lie" train of thought...somebody once said of Lillian Hellmann that every word she wrote was a lie, including "and" and "the"...
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Survivor
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You'd love it, you know you would.
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quantumphotonkid
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This statement is a lie.

Ponder that one.

And to remain on-topic, I'm surprised nobody mentioned OSC's Ender's Shadow. The entire opening sequence is a dialog between two unidentified characters from no particular point of view, and the significance of the dialogue is not revealed until the middle of the second chapter. This kind of thing happens during some of the later Harry Potter novels.

Anyway my point is that most people here seem to agree that hiding information that the PoV knows is generally bad. I think its more accurate to say that you shouldn't hide information that the MC knows.


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kings_falcon
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Survior, it would definately be a great challenge.
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hoptoad
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opposing counsel?
you wouldn't actually want him on your side... would you?

edit for eek face

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited November 13, 2006).]


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hoptoad
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Now to stir the pot a bit: single words often constitute a statement. Particularly in response to a question of fact. The word statement refers to pronouncements of the 'state' of the facts. A false statement, of itself, does not constitute a lie. A 'lie' is a 'statement' made with intent to deceive. It is the 'intent' that defines whether something is a lie or not. In other words, any word uttered in the context of a broader intent to deceive is a lie.

A lie can be created by simply leaving out relevent facts and presenting the remaining 'facts' in such a way as to deliberately lead the listener into error. People who get caught doing this generally claim to have been misunderstood . Of course 'buyer beware' when it comes to listening to others anyway. But how can you prove someone's intent? Polygraph, voice stress analysis, FMRI, Electroencephalography? These may be able to detect a person's desire to conceal or deceive, but can't prove that a 'lie' actually occurred. All they can say is that a lie probably took place. In light of the difficulty of proving an intent to deceive, most people take the line that if a statement is 'technically correct' it is not a lie. This is often a mistake.

The dilemma is illustrated by the questions:

quote:

'Did you lie to her?'
'No.'
'Did you intend to deceive her?'
'Yes.

The answers may easily be referring to the same incident. To detect a lie requires judgement.

Another point, a statement can be verbal, but it can also be non-verbal. Therefore a lie can have no words at all.

In writing a story, lying to the reader is to deliberately misrepresent the 'facts' of the story, often by leaving out the 'relevent facts' that the POV character already knows by the time the story starts. This sort of thing is just plain stupid.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited November 13, 2006).]


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Survivor
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I missed the part where you explained how a word, in and of itself, can be a statement except by affimation or negation of an existing statment. This is, of course, a triviality, it wasn't my intent to sidetrack the discussion. I was just kidding around.

Generally, a lie is defined as a statement which is known to be false when it is asserted. The "intent to decieve" is a secondary characteristic, we can assume that if a person knowingly makes false statements, that intention is present.

The essential difference between a "lie" and a deception is that lies must take place in the form of formal communication. A formal communication is a mode of information transfer in which both the transmitter and reciever are actively facilitating the transfer of information. This is fundamentally different from other modes of "communication" such as surveillance or intimidation, where one party or the other is not actively facilitating the transfer of information.

In other words, in formal communications the entire premise is that both parties want to communicate. If I'm under surveillance, then I haven't necessarily come to any kind of agreement with the other party that I will try to be honest. I'm therefore under no moral obligation to refrain from hindering the attempted information transfer. If someone is intimidating me, I have no reason to take them at their "word". But if I'm engaged in formal communication I am necessarily agreeing to the transfer of information. This agreement exists by virtue of the act of attempting formal communication. Thus to knowingly make false statements in formal communication is to undermine the very basis of an activity that I have implicitly acknowledged as valuable.

Naturally, books fall into the catagory of formal communications, being even more formal than spoken language. So any effort on the part of the writer to distort the information is clearly a lie, and will be treated as such.


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hoptoad
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Q: What sort of pet do you own?
A: Dog
Q: What sort of dog?
A: Pitbull
Q: Does it bite?
A: Sometimes.
Q: Why is it biting me?
A: That's not my dog?

quote:

The essential difference between a "lie" and a deception is that lies must take place in the form of formal communication.

That is not true. Both imply intent to deceive. One is to deliberately lead someone to believe something that is known to be untrue and so is the other. As you point out, a person who makes a mistake in their observations were not deceived by the subject, they were mistaken. But if the observed subject had intended to mislead an observer into believing something other than the truth, then the observer was deceived. Many people live a lies like this.

You're right about potential sidetracking the thread so to make my point cleare: when vital information is withheld from the reader it is not automatically a lie. It is either a lie or it is incompetence ie: I was trying to build mystique.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited November 13, 2006).]


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kings_falcon
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Hoptoad if Survior were on my side either: (1) we'd take over the world, or (2) we'd destroy it.

In any event, the "incompetence" is often more inexperience. Too many people when they first start out (and occassionally oft published novelist) think that withholding something that a POV knows is building suspense/setting the reader up for a twists. Twists are plot line devices that we didn't see coming despite the clues along the way.

During my "beach" trip to Maine, I have a simple rule (which is why I still call it a beach trip even though I'm in a cabin in the middle of the woods, anyway), the only thing I get to read is brain candy. Generally this translates into romance or romance/mystery novels. So I picked up a book that was in the cabin from a very established author. She violated the withholding information rule - got inside the POV of her antagonist and withheld critical information AND she left no clues to let me figure it out.

The price of doing that for me was that I won't ever buy/read her books again because she royally ticked me off. Had she told me the information she withheld, there would have been more suspense because I would have been worried that the MC and her friends wouldn't figure it out in time.


Just tell me. If you write a good story, telling me makes it better.


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hoptoad
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option A and option B are not mutually exclusive
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Survivor
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Well, there are a lot of different definitions of insanity, but destroying a planet you already own is probably pretty high on my list. I have nothing against the planet itself, after all

As I said, for purposes of writing a story, attempts to decieve the reader are necessarily "lies" because writing is a formal communication based on the implicit cooperation of both parties. It's simply not the same thing as closing the bathroom door when you're on the toilet.


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kings_falcon
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Jenn
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Hey Wbriggs, I couldn't help responding to this. I know the mystery book you mention because I borrowed it from the school library when I was in eighth grade and guess what??!! The last word was blacked out!
Denouement without confirmation, important to a kid.
But I've also been thinking about the way Alistair Maclean used to do it. He had his main characters (often first person) scudding around slippery night-time decks doing one thing and another without revealing crucial aspects of what those things were (usually setting up the scene where he would suddenly reveal what the tendrilly thread of copper wire in the ceiling was really for, or how he can get the evil guys in a bathscaphe to reveal everything they know at the point of death only to save them for prison...). And in Fear is the Key, a real drossy novel I absolutely loved, it's extremely well done. So I'm a big fan of knowing how to not tell all.

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arriki
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One technique of withoholding information from the reader that I have found working for me (as reader, in this case) is when the pov after examination of some problem suddenly (for example) sees an article in a newspaper and has a revelation to which the reader is not admitted. The scene ends. The reader realizes that something has been determined, but not what. The reader reads on to find out.

Works for me, if not over-used.


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Survivor
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I'm going to say that I hate that sort of thing enough to pan an otherwise good story because of even one occurance. I think that it's okay to have the POV wondering how something (like aforementioned article) might be relevant to his situation and then break to another character before it becomes apparent, but having the POV realize something obviously important and then specifically depriving the reader of that information is hack work. I catch you doing it even once and you will have to slit your belly (metaphorically speaking) before I'll forgive you.
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kings_falcon
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You'd actually forgive them?
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Survivor
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If you kill or totally incapacitate that POV character immediately (and suicide as a result of realizing whatever it is that you don't tell us works for this) and deal with the resulting story consequences, that's one way I'd forgive such a thing, yes. There are other ways to metaphorically slit your belly, but that's probably the easiest to understand.
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Corky
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I really hate it when a writer does that, too. I think it's a terrible way to play mind games with the reader.

If you just have to do something like that, don't have the POV character be the one who gets the revelation.


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dee_boncci
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I am tolerant to a point.

I don't mind a little delay in getting information. For example, if a scene breaks at the moment of an epiphany without the epiphany being disclosed to the reader, so long as the reader gets the epiphany in the very next scene with a relevant POV character, I'll go with the flow. That's a pretty standard device that works if it's not over used. I don't write that way, but as a reader I'm okay with it.

I must be a relatively forgiving reader. I don't mind getting manipulated by a writer (in fact, it's what I pay for). If it's too heavy-handed I'd chafe a little, but otherwise I let it go. I relate to books more on a visceral level than an intellectual level. I can't ever remember looking back after a book and said, "Hey, that's cheating!" I've probably been corrupted by movies, though.

The only books i've ever put down without finishing are the ones that try to be too literary, to give too much information about what the character thinks and feels and knows and likes and dislikes and experienced as a child, etc. Familiarity breeds contempt, I guess. But I'm getting off topic.


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Survivor
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Belly slitting is messy, isn't it? But for some things, it's the only way to gain forgiveness.

The problem then is figuring out how to get me to forgive you for the belly slitting


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Ash
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In other words, what I am getting is "Have secrets, but have them be other people's secrets, not the POV character's secrets, so we never feel cheated by the POV character, and can journey with him as he figures things out. And let him figure things out." Sounds good. But I wonder how well you can get to know someone in the first 13 lines of a novel.
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wbriggs
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See also
Why the problem with the first 13 isn't that it isn't enough http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum1/HTML/002662.html

for previous discussion of that issue.


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RMatthewWare
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Since I have started writing, I am more critical of the things I read. One of my pet-peeves is when the writer does something to draw attention to the writing. When I read a book, I want to fall into that world and be able to see the events and know the characters at face value. If there's something the POV character knows, and its critical to the story, I'm going to be upset, because I'm going to see the writer trying to be cute rather than the story unfolding naturally.

I'm reading Speaker for the Dead right now, and there's this critical bit of knowledge that a POV character learns, but does not share with the reader. That's okay, though, because as soon as he learns it, he dies. So the point there was that the knowledge went with him BEFORE he was able to share it with the reader.

Matt


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Survivor
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Heh, we also weren't in his POV at the time. But yes, that's a good example of a time when Card had to choose between using a character as a POV ever again and revealing something that was a critical plot secret. He made the right choice, and actually benefited from his "belly slitting"

quote:
If slicing your guts open would help me pass, I wouldn't be so pissed off.

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Max Masterson
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is the mystery mentioned by wbriggs written by Agatha C-------?
Because when I read that I enjoyed it because once I knew the pov character was the killer every clue she gave during the story made sense.
But then I prefer to be surprised at end of a story (especially films like: The Usual Suspects, Layercake, Swordfish)

Also I really enjoy Alistair Macleans books that Jenn mentioned. In them he has several pov characters and the subordinate one's are always complaining that he leader won't tell them everything. His reason for not telling them is that if they are captured by the germans (or whoever they are fighting) they will be interrogated and what they don't know they can't tell. The fact that you know your not being told everything adds to the suspense of the story.

I think that's the key as has already been mentioned. If the reader knows that he's not being told everything they might forgive you as long as it's done well.


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