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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Withholding vs. Good plotting. How to tell?

   
Author Topic: Withholding vs. Good plotting. How to tell?
Teraen
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I've got a problem I'd like some feedback on. I've posted the first part of my story, and had some consistencies in the feedback. I am worried that what I thought would be a great plot twist is coming across as withholding and turning people off. I want to know if I am simply failing as a writer to pull it off, or if my whole idea leans to withholding and should be tossed out.

I start with a mysterious man who gets a message from the afterlife that a new threat to him has arisen. I tried to show him as the bad guy, communicating with the dead and killing people etc... And then he runs off to go hunt this threat down.

I did this, because I have some back story I need to fill, and every time I tried to start it at an "interesting" scene, I got stuck because my characters had no motivation for their actions. Whenever I explained backstory so that they had motivation, it was an info dump and boring. I figured out this current intro, and I like it because it adds a time bomb over the opening scenes. Even though I spend time showing how the character falls in love, there is the threat that this mysterious man is hunting him down. I hope it adds tension.

However, this man's identity I wanted to be a plot twist. I want my main character to end up joining him. (imagine Darth Vader telling Luke to join him, and Luke says "sure. Why not?" instead of resisting.)

So my question is broad:

How to tell when you are withholding crucial information, vs. keeping vital plot information until its ready to be revealed?


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keithjgrant
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My take: If you're hiding something your POV character knows, the reader will feel cheated.

Having said that, there are a few exceptions. It could be a topic your character doesn't think about, thus you have no reason to comment until it comes up. Also, it's fairly common practice for a POV character to come up with a plan that isn't told to the reader, but only if we are about to immediately embark on fulfilling that plan (otherwise, it would require repeating information to the reader as it plays out).

Hiding the POV character's identity is probably not okay. I don't know what about your character you're hiding, but I would be cautious. If keeping it a secret is integral to the story, consider making somebody besides the protagonist your POV character.


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BoredCrow
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I agree with the above that hiding anything the POV knows is withholding, and that in the case of important character information, you risk the reader thinking "huh?" when the secret is revealed, or feeling tricked. Hard to say anything else without more details, but I for one am not a fan of any sort of witholding. I'd think the fact that your character is receiving messages from the afterlife is a pretty good hook.
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Teraen
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Maybe it'll make more sense if I outline it a bit.

Scene 1 is my mystery man, told from his POV.

Scene 2 is my main character, told from his POV, as is most of the rest of the story.

Think of scene 1 like a prologue. I don't know if its taboo to do the broken point of view, but I have always felt as long as it isn't changing often, it works. No more than one POV per chapter... and even that is usually too much.

So I have to be careful, but all the advice I have seen is based on revealing information that the POV knows, and if not told, its withholding. But my scene is that he kills somebody and gets a message from beyond. I don't want to start an info dump talking about who this man is, why he is overthrowing the empire, etc etc...

The only good advice I've seen on these boards(and why I'm hoping it works) is that sometimes it isn't withholding if the POV simply isn't thinking about it at the moment...

I know this is a cloudy area open to interpretation, but I'd love some form of litmus test, or at least guidelines. How do I know when it is blatant withholding?

I think (hope) I am getting that feedback because I simply failed to communicate in my writing, not that I actually am withholding...

[This message has been edited by Teraen (edited July 13, 2009).]


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Natej11
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For me I think the main issue of withholding is just how well we know the character, and how deep we are in their PoV. If the character is showing us effectively how he interprets everything that's happening, and what he feels about it all, then to have a hole in all of that detail just to make a surprise plot twist later on would definitely scream withholding.

On the other hand, saving information to reveal when it will have the most impact is one of the keys to building suspense, as long as you have a good reason for it and it doesn't seem contrived.

Edit: Just saw your second post. IMO the mystery man PoV isn't withholding at all. It's a common technique, and one that almost everyone loves. We all like an enigma that we slowly learn more of, until the fateful moment of revelation when we discover that he just happens to be a former member of the Guardian Twelve long in self-imposed exile to reclaim his honor. Or whatever.

Just don't go too deeply into his PoV and I say you're fine.

[This message has been edited by Natej11 (edited July 13, 2009).]


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Owasm
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If you're worried about the withholding and don't know what to do, try moving the beginning of the story somewhere else, before or after.

If you are sensed to be withholding, the reader will feel manipulated and you want to minimze that.


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KayTi
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I think that one way you may be able to accomplish what you're aiming for here is to go for light penetration with the mystery man's POV. You don't want to be deep in his head, going over every thought and feeling, sucking the reader deep into this character and all his gnarly insides. Instead you want to aim for a little bit of aloof distance. Watching what he's doing, not really seeing much about his motivation. Maybe a few articulated thoughts to himself, but not a lot.

And keep the chapter brief.

Then switch to the MC POV, and change the penetration level. Get deep into the MC. Let us feel what he's feeling, really get to know him. We won't feel cheated if we saw just a short chapter with some other guy that seems to be setting up some kind of action that the MC will then have to face. This is done in movies all the time. Our hapless protagonist is be-bopping along and we've seen the antagonist laying the bomb and we all want to scream to the MC to avoid going that particular way to work today but he doesn't and kaboom he gets blown up and next scene is in a hospital...on mars. or some such. It also was used to pretty good effect in the later Harry Potter books - 6 and 7 in particular. We start with a view into the world of the bad guys. Oooh, look at them plot and be evil. Oooh, chilling how horrible they are. Oooh, I wonder what this unbreakable vow thing is about. These chapters give rise to some of the story questions, which we then spend considerable time and effort later in the books seeking the answers to.

But in those chapters, we're not in Voldemort's head, nor Narcissa's (though they're the POV characters) - instead we're in a more cinematic POV, where we're kind of a fly on the wall, taking in a lot of the action without being deeply immersed in it as an actor in the scene.

Have you read Characters and Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card? He explains these concepts really well, particularly late in the book. Very good illustrations and examples to help think through what the different kinds of immersions feel like/look like.

I hope this is helpful, good luck!


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Robert Nowall
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I remember one of the early Terry Brooks / "Shannara" novels (might've been the first, but I don't remember at this late date) where it seemed that one character spent what seemed like a god-awful lot of time telling the lead character that he couldn't tell him everything the lead character wanted to know about what was going on. (Don't remember if I noticed it while reading it...I remember a reviewer pointing it out, and my thinking, "Yeah, he's right.")

I'd be inclined to avoid it myself, if I could---but if you've gotta, I wouldn't recommend doing POV chapters from the POV of the guy-who-knows-and-won't-tell.

Failing that, you might have the guy(s)-who-don't-know start thinking the guy-who-knows might be lying about things---that he really doesn't know and is only saying he does to make them think he really does...after all, if somebody who knows thew answer won't tell you what it is, why should you believe him?


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Jaz
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I have always found the withholding info thing a little gimicky.

That being said, my current WIP started off as that exact gimick, and as a short story it worked ok. But for the novel I have started with the "end" and so the reader knows exactly who that person is, and the rest of the book is a journey to how he gets there. (I guess it was kinda like the draw of the Star Wars prequels, especially #3, where we wanted to see how Darth Vader became who he is.)

That's one other option on how to build suspense without withholding anything.


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jayazman
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I just finished Warbreaker. The book opens with a character doing some things that sound like they could be important. Very little information is given about this character's motivations. The information given is only about what's happening right then. We don't see this character again for many chapters. When he does show up again, it is briefly, and from another person POV.
We don't get this character's POV, who was the first person introduced in the story, again unitl over half way through. He turns out to be very important to the story's ending.
This is a long way of saying you can introduce a character without telling to much about him, who he is, or even why he is doing things, and still have it work.

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keithjgrant
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quote:
Scene 1 is my mystery man, told from his POV.

Scene 2 is my main character, told from his POV, as is most of the rest of the story.

Think of scene 1 like a prologue. I don't know if its taboo to do the broken point of view, but I have always felt as long as it isn't changing often, it works. No more than one POV per chapter... and even that is usually too much.


Ah. I agree with what's been said; this is perfectly legitimate, just don't penetrate too deeply into the prologue character's head.

You've got two beginnings to your story now, though, so make sure they're good.


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Collin
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Hey Teraen. After reading your first bit, I might have a solution. I realize that this might not be the way you want to go, but perhaps this first bit could be seen through the eyes of one of the outlaws that is traveling with the old man? It could be the one that interrupts him, and you could even have him be spying on the old man when he talks to the spirit, that way you get that part in too. Just a thought though.
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Teraen
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Thanks for all the advice... Its given me enough to keep working on it...


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Robert Nowall
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Actually, I felt the three "Star Wars" prequels blew some of the carefully-contrived planted surprises in the next three right out of the water. {"Luke...I am your father" and the Yoda scenes don't make any sense if you've seen Episodes 1, 2, and 3 first. Unlikely as that may be.)
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Zero
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True, Robert,

But in all fairness, Lucas wasn't holding things back because he hadn't thought of most of his ideas yet. He doesn't think ahead. And as proof the three prequels were bloody terrible.


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Robert Nowall
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Ah, but would you have loved them if they had come out before the other three?
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Jaz
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Well my take is - As bad as they were, and yes, they were bad for a number of reasons, I don't think anyone would have cared about them if they would have come out first. We would have looked at the annoying little boy and seen just that, instead of seeing an annoying little boy and knowing that he was going to become this 'Ultimate Villain.' I think that held the viewers more than the story did.
There's no way that the movies would have made as much if they would have come out first - which is exactly why they didn't.
Using the show the end first technique, made a poor series of stories a bit more interesting (and more profitable).

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Zero
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Hard to say. I probably would have liked them more, but even still they were full of blunders. The most paramount of which is bad plotting and bad directing.
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extrinsic
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The way I determine if a story is frustratingly withholding is if knowing the ending, having read the story all the way through and upon reading it again, it's as good in terms of immersion and engagingly entertaining. A story with ineffective withholding won't hold up to a second reading. That is why I groan at trick ending stories that end on a joke's punchline or an absurdity.

O. Henry's multitude of stories by and large are trick ending stories, but they end on sublime notes that entice me to reread and read again and again. "Gift of the Magi," being one of the more widely known and acclaimed O. Henry stories.

http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2776

Roald Dahl's "Man from the South," while actually a Revelation story incorporates a trick ending, and has a great use of withholding, a conflict resolution aspect, character oriented story, and so on. I read it again and again.

http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/south.html

Algis Burdrys was a master of the right kind of withholding. His "The Stoker and the Stars" has a trick ending, the narrator knows the ending but withholds revealing the sublime nature of the story's point until the end when it's an exaltation of the story, the focal character, and a validation of the resolution. I read it again and again.

http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/22967

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited July 15, 2009).]


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Teraen
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extrinisic, I think that is a great test. I think that may be the key for what I was looking for. In my case, of course the second time read through, readers will know all the details. Writing in a way that even the second read through is entertaining is going to help me focus.

Thanks for the links. I'll check them out.


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philocinemas
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I wrote a story a while back that relied somewhat on withholding. The second read-through is then interpreted differently, but contains some interesting allegories. I'm currently rewriting a longer version of this story and pulling back a little in POV so not to anger readers.
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Jaz
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One last input from me on this.
By coincidence my wife started book 3 of the Twilight series last night and a habit of hers ties in well with this discussion.
She reads the last chapter of every book first! Even on books she's read before. When asked why, she said "I like to know what happened, and then find out how it got there, it makes things more interesting for me."
Maybe my ideas on this are influenced by my crazy wife (many other things are, so why not this.)
Again, showing the end first is just one device.
Or maybe I just like doing that to really screw her up.

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Robert Nowall
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http://www.artandperception.com/v01/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/gericault-raft_of_the_medusa.jpg

"Getting there is half the fun."


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JeffBarton
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Since I may share some guilt here, let me recommend KayTi's approach. The degree of depth matters. The difficulty then is to give the same feel of Scurcifer without getting too far into his head.

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BenM
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My current project involves a great deal of hidden motivation etc - several characters' outward actions often conflict with their internal goals. As a result I find I can't show their scenes from their point of view but instead show their scene from less conflicted characters - their aides or other unbiased observers. That way when I spring the plot twists later the reader won't throw the book against the wall (or so I hope).
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