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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Tension vs. Withholding

   
Author Topic: Tension vs. Withholding
Osiris
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Hi,


I'm having a bit of a dilemma with one of my stories and wanted to get a few opinions. I know what OSC says about withholding information from the reader, but in the case of my story, it has been commented on that by broadcasting my protag's intent (through internal dialog) to take a particular course of action in the climax of the story, I defuse some of the tension the reader is feeling.

In the original version of this story, I did not broadcast his intentions, and received comments that I should not withhold his intent.

So I feel like I have to choose between the two; either withhold the protag's intent and preserve the heightened tension, or broadcast his intent and lose some of the tension.

So, is there a way I can have my cake and eat it too? Have you run into this problem before, and if so, what did you do?


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Foste
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Have you tried making his intent very difficult (or perilous) to achieve?

That way, they cake would be half eaten.


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Owasm
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That's what foreshadowing is for. You give the reader hints so they're softened up when the actual event occurs. And it is a fine line. I'm often too subtle and no one picks up the hints

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Osiris
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quote:
That's what foreshadowing is for. You give the reader hints so they're softened up when the actual event occurs. And it is a fine line. I'm often too subtle and no one picks up the hints

That might have been the problem... my hints perhaps were to subtle. Thanks, I'll give some thought to dialing up the foreshadowing a bit.


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Dark Warrior
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Dan Brown makes a living off of it if you look at the closing paragraphs of about every chapter in his books.
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babooher
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Ever thought about making the protag unsure of what to do? If the protag feels uncertain, it might help to heighten the tension while letting the audience in on some info. It might also make the protag more human, more approachable.


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MattLeo
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Well, concealing important information is a dicey proposition, because attentive readers will notice you haven't been playing fair with them.

There are a number of ways to build tension without withholding basic information from the reader. One of the classic bits of advice for dramatists is to make the antagonist stronger than the hero. The hero decides to force a showdown despite this. It may be a leap of faith or an act of desperation. As the writer you have a lot of spade work to do up front to make the hero's victory plausible, because you want it to seem unreasonable a priori and almost inevitable after the fact.

One classic and very effective way of building suspense is to withhold information from the protagonist that the reader is acutely aware of. When Sweet Mary Sue takes that governess position at Moldy Manor, we the readers know that the last three women, like Mary Sue, remarkably resembled the squire's late wife and *they all disappeared under mysterious circumstances*. You don't even have to be that obvious. Sometimes readers just *know* that a lovely but inexperienced young girl taking a position at place like Moldy Manor is leading to trouble.

This gets to a common fault in early drafts, which is that the protagonist is really a thinly disguised proxy for the author, and tends to share the author's comprehensive awareness of the situation. Introducing ignorance of certain important facts into the protagonist's POV is a terrific way to separate the protagonist from the author's persona. "Unreliable narrator" is sometimes an example of this. Sometimes the narrator has an agenda he is foisting on the reader, but other times he's just clueless. Cluelessness is a wonderful way to create both suspense and humor, as the hero blithely sails into a hair-raising confrontation blissfully unaware of the obvious.


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coralm
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I'm struggling with this in one of my stories as well. In the case of the one I'm working on, the protag has an "Aha" moment where she realizes what she needs to do but that comes a few pages before the actual climax in action. I've tried it both ways so far and I've waffled back and forth.

The way I have it currently reading she has an impression about something that gives her the clue, then she has the thought of what she's going to do but doesn't say exactly what, and then she does it. This unravels over the course of maybe half a dozen pages, so the anticipation doesn't go too long. There are a couple of hints earlier on in the story that allude to what she ends up doing, but it's not detailed out. Doing it this way, I hope what will happen is that the more clever readers will know as soon as the impression strikes, which is fine.

Now mind you, my story is not in any way a mystery or thriller, so the development of that kind of tension isn't what keeps the story going. I'd say a lot depends on the kind of story you're writing and how tight the PoV is. The story I mention above is first person, so I find it difficult to keep anything from the reader for long.


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tchernabyelo
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I had a situation something like this in one of my stories - "St. Saviour and the Devil's Dandy". The MC had to come up with a plan as to how to defeat the bad guy's minions, but of course once he comes up with the plan, there's no dramatic tension in th execution of the plan.

Unless, of course, the plan only partly works. Which is what happens, and the MC is then faced with having to improvise on the fly.

I find it a good general rule to work by. I hate the "Here's what we're going to do..." cutaway (very heavily used in TV, particularly). I know it's done to maintain tension, but it's so blatantly manipulation of the reader/viewer that I can't abide it. Much more entertaining to let us know the plan and then watch it go horribly wrong. That's what makes for a good caper movie (rather than, say, watching a plan apparently go right, get derailed at the very last minute, and then discover there was really a different plan all along, a la some of the "Ocean's" movies). Another good alternative for visual media is to use narration - as they are talking about the plan, show us flashforwards of the plan in action. Again, especially fun if you then hit a sudden disconnect between narrative and action - just as someone is saying "and then you take out the guard on the second floor" we see the guard on the second floor raising the alarm.

I realise that's not a technique that's easily applied to a purely written medium, sadly.


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redux
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I recommend taking a look at Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY. The novel is an excellent example of the use of foreshadowing. The ending, a murdered Gatsby, was the inevitable crash of a runaway train that was set in motion from the very start of the story.

Examples:
Gatsby's unsavory friend Wolfsheim wears cufflinks made from human molars. The reader just knows that no good can come of that. Instantly, there is an expectation that Gatsby might come to a bad end.

There is a car crash after one of Gatsby's parties where people think the driver was the man but it turns out it was his wife/date. That scene foreshadows Daisy's reckless driving and Gatsby taking the blame.

Wilson's obsession over the sale of Tom Buchanan's car and Michaelis's vigil over Wilson after Myrtle is killed both foreshadow Wilson's breakdown and murder-suicide.

When Wilson kills Gatsby it never feels out of place or coming out of left field. Even though the reader never inhabits Wilson's PoV, his characterization as well as all the scenes leading up to the climax make Wilson's motivation and Gatsby's demise believable if not tragically inevitable.

My advice is that you take a look and see if you can create scenes that foreshadow the MC's decision making process. For instance, if your MC does something completely reckless during the climax you should have a scene early on in the story depicting the MC's reckless streak. That way, when the crucial time comes, and the MC does something incredibly crazy, it will be completely believable and in character without having blatantly broadcast the MC's intentions.


[This message has been edited by redux (edited December 22, 2010).]


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Osiris
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quote:
Ever thought about making the protag unsure of what to do? If the protag feels uncertain, it might help to heighten the tension while letting the audience in on some info. It might also make the protag more human, more approachable.

I did think of this, but the problem is that would be out of character. He is the very decisive type and is used to planning strategies (he is high ranking ex-military).

To boil down the situation without getting into details (this is going to be a WoTF entry), the protag decides that he is going to scare the wits out of someone with his gun by shooting up the environment (which is the real antagonist in the story), but not actually kill or injure him.

The reader comment I mentioned above was that by broadcasting the protag's internal dialog that he did not plan to actually kill the someone, I was defusing the tension of finding out what would actually happen to the man.

So basically, I want to:

a) Preserve the tension for the reader not knowing what will happen to the someone he scares.

b) Keep the MC from seeming out of character by being indecisive or by going completely nuts.

Based on a couple of responses, it does seem like more foreshadowing may be the route I need to go.

If anyone has seen the movie 'Falling Down', the story is a bit similar to that, only the protag doesn't lose it as completely as the MC in that movie did.

[This message has been edited by Osiris (edited December 22, 2010).]


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JamieFord
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If the protag is the POV character and the protag knows what he's doing, there's no need to withhold that from the reader. It'll only annoy the reader, honestly. The tension can come from the reader not knowing what's going to happen to the protag, how he will succeed or fail, how he will react to the those successes or failures, etc.
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MAP
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I dont like it when authors withhold information to create tension. It feels artificial if that makes sense.

If you create a story with a strong conflict, then the tension should be there even if the reader knows everything the pov character knows.

I agree with tchernabyelo that knowing the mc's plan and watching it fall apart is always fun. But if you want the MC's plan to go off without a problem, maybe you could switch POV for that scene, like Watson and Sherlock Holmes.

[This message has been edited by MAP (edited December 22, 2010).]


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TamesonYip
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I think it depends a lot on the flow of the story. I never got annoyed when Dresden withheld info. That is written first person and that makes a difference to me. In the Horse and his Boy (Narnia) the girl is telling Shasta her story and she says she writes a letter and shasta asks, what is in it? Bree tells him to wait- she'll surely tell him at the relevant moment. With first person narrators, I am more willing to trust the narrator to tell me at the right moment. It is afterall their story.
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MattLeo
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quote:
So basically, I want to:

a) Preserve the tension for the reader not knowing what will happen to the someone he scares.

b) Keep the MC from seeming out of character by being indecisive or by going completely nuts.


OK, here's where letting the reader know *more* than the MC is the perfect solution.

You say your hero is so competent, decisive and capable he's practically a superman? No problem. Even superman is vulnerable when he doesn't know there's a kryptonite trap waiting for him. You make sure the *reader* knows, and that creates at least some tension. This works even better when superman is doing something the reader really wants him to succeed at, like preventing Lois Lane from being kidnapped as she investigates the origin of the evil freeze ray.

This works for not quite super characters too. Zorro rides into the canyon to rescue Father Felipe but he doesn't know this is a trap set by the evil Captain Esteban. Zorro is invincible at close quarters, so Esteban's troops plan to riddle him with bullets from the rim of the canyon. But that means Zorro won't be in time to prevent Lolita's forced marriage to the wicked Esteban!

It's the same pattern. You set a trap for the hero in plain sight of the reader, then you have the _unsuspecting_ hero ride right into the trap on his way to stop the villain from doing something the reader really wants stopped. The trick is to make sure the hero has an out, something he noticed at some point without realizing it was important. Maybe Zorro rode through that canyon earlier with Father Felipe, who piously noted that the buzzards who constantly drifted on the updrafts there always reminded him of human mortality. Zorro's thoughts turn to human mortality then he freezes. Where are the buzzards? This is followed by a thrilling scene in which Zorro, through his amazingly quick thinking, escapes by the skin of his teeth. This leaves him free to arrive just in the nick of time as Lolita is being forced at sword point to say "I do."

Gosh, now I want to see that Zorro movie I've just dreamed up.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited December 22, 2010).]

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited December 22, 2010).]


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Osiris
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quote:
You say your hero is so competent, decisive and capable he's practically a superman? No problem.

Actually he is decisive to a fault (stubborn), which is what gets him into trouble in the story.

You make some good points though, Matt. I wonder how you can show the trap without the hero noticing it, if the story is completely from the POV of the hero, though. He sees the trap but doesn't realize it, but write it in such a way that the reader would?


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MartinV
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I'm a bit confused with what we're trying to determine here. Is it wrong for the AUTHOR to withhold information from the reader or is it wrong for the PROTAGONIST to withhold that information from the reader?

The difference is that the author cannot tell the reader everything from the start, otherwise you cannot have a story development. If the main character knows something but smugly refuses to share that information with us, then he's wrong.

Am I getting this?


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Osiris
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Basically Martin, in my story, the main character decides on a plan of action and then carries out his plan.

A reader told me they thought I shouldn't broadcast the plan because it defuses some (not all) of the buildup of tension that happens within the story.

So I am trying to figure out a way to not withhold the information and preserve the tension at the same time.


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Corky
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How about if the POV character notices something that signals to the reader that the POV character's plan won't work, but the POV character doesn't realize it?

So the tension comes from the reader knowing the POV character's plan and knowing it isn't going to work out the way the POV character thinks it will, and therefore the reader wonders what the heck is going to happen when the plan doesn't work.


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Osiris
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I think this thread has made me realize that the 'devil is in the details' for this situation. It'll go through a round of critiques through the current quarter's WoTF crit group, so I'll definitely put the question forward again there.

I'll definitely keep what everyone has said in mind, it has been quite helpful. Thanks for your input!


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MartinV
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quote:
...in my story, the main character decides on a plan of action and then carries out his plan.

A reader told me they thought I shouldn't broadcast the plan because it defuses some (not all) of the buildup of tension that happens within the story.


That's easy. Have you character make a plan and then make that plan go terribly bad, forcing your character to improvise and suffer at the same time. The audience always loves a good beating. ;-)

There is a saying in military circles. Don't know who said it but it goes: "No plan survives contact with the enemy."

Meaning you can have a marvelous plan how to defeat your foe but the foe will never act as you want him to act. So you will have to abandon your plan.

[This message has been edited by MartinV (edited December 22, 2010).]


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TamesonYip
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MartinV- the classic example of witholding that annoys readers would be:

Then Bob realized everything. The solution was simple! He called Jane and told her the new plan. "This is totally going to work," said Jane.


I have tried to have hints of things that the narrator misses but are crucial details. Unfortunately, almost always, people miss those hints. Though I also have had unreliable narrators who tell you flat out they lie and yet my readers assume everything they are told is true. Which makes me wonder if I am too subtle or readers are too stupid.


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MartinV
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quote:
Then Bob realized everything. The solution was simple! He called Jane and told her the new plan. "This is totally going to work," said Jane.

I did that once. The story even got published but the hiding was only for a page or two. I think many detective stories work like that. Hercule Poirot certainly knows who the murderer is before he calls his little group therapy sessions.


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philocinemas
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quote:
Then Bob realized everything. The solution was simple! He called Jane and told her the new plan. "This is totally going to work," said Jane.

This is a great example of witholding. This is stating that the MC now knows the solution, but we, the readers, will not be allowed to know what that is until later. Christie did it more subtley - "Have everyone gather in the drawing room." Then the detective would explain what happened.

The tension in Christie novels was all about slowly narrowing down the possible suspects. The detective did not know until the very end, after putting all the clues together, who the killer was. There never was any period of withholding, unless you count the length of time it took to explain everything.

As I see it, there are two main ways of building tension:
1 - The reader foreknows the outcome and the story builds to that moment.
2 - An outcome is unknown and through the course of the story, the outcome is revealed.

Sure, there are other factors like killing off characters along the way, creating confusion (red herrings), or even using conflict, but these are actually all subsets of the two types of tension from above. These "factors" are smaller forms of the two ways I already listed. Most of the time you know when one of Christie's characters are about to get "the axe" so to speak. If there is conflict, you will likely anticipate the outcome.

Osiris, I imagine the problem with your story, not having read it, is that there is a big gap between your MC deciding what he is going to do and then accomplishing it in some fashion. This is done all the time on TV. The old Hannabal Smith adage comes to mind - "I love it when a plan comes together!" I imagine this comes across better in drama due to its visual nature - we're never really inside the character's head. Unfortunately, this breaks one of the elusive "rules" of literature.

So, your MC is a big planner, and he plans to scare this poor chap but not kill him. Why not kill him then? Not on purpose, but by accident. In the meantime make things go wrong, create conflict, provide red herrings, and create smaller periods of tension building up to the climax. Otherwise, make your story less about forming and setting up the plan and more about the MC's need to act fast and work outside his comfort zone - that way making the plan something that comes together just prior to the climax.


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LDWriter2
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I've had a problem with this too...especially the not withholding info from the reader. part of that reason is that I have read novels where some bit of info has been with held. Is this just a lazy writer or does he-she know how to do it well enough to get away with it?

Sometimes it's the hero's plan or in a couple of places rather he had a plan or not, as has already been discussed. At times it's something about the bad guy which allows the hero's plan to not work and he has to work out something else very quickly.

So it seems to be okay to withhold certain types of info but not others. I can't recall any time when I've felt cheated because of something I didn't know. It could have happened but very few times if it has.


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Osiris
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quote:
Osiris, I imagine the problem with your story, not having read it, is that there is a big gap between your MC deciding what he is going to do and then accomplishing it in some fashion.

Actually, he comes up with the plan a few hours before it is executed (in 'real' time) or just a page or two before in writing terms.

quote:

Otherwise, make your story less about forming and setting up the plan and more about the MC's need to act fast and work outside his comfort zone - that way making the plan something that comes together just prior to the climax.

This comes pretty close in that the more I think about it, the less important the planning/withholding issue seems to be. The climax is really a catalyst for internal changes for the character, and thats what is really important, not so much the plan and execution of it.

I think it's Eric James Stone who said he'd advise not to wring ones hands about a single comment made by a single critiquer, and I think this is what I've done.


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philocinemas
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The first short story I wrote after coming to Hatrack was one about a talking hovercar and a "woman" - there was some witholding in it. I entered the story in a contest here at Hatrack and it has had many changes over time, but essentially this is how it went:

A male character leaves a message that he plans on trading for a new "XR model".
The hovercar and the "woman" discuss, and at times argue, about why he wants to trade and whether she should go through with it.
The only thing is that the "woman" is the XR model, which is revealed about 2/3 of the way through.
Throughout the piece, I use words such as "process", "mechanically", "breakdown", etc. to let the reader know this.
However, the story was essentially about the "woman's" decision whether to trade and her coming to realize her own "feelings" about the car.

I had some critiquers tell me that I gave too much away with the "hints". I had some critiquers tell me that I should just be upfront that she was a robot. Then I had some critiquers tell me that they didn't feel cheated, because the "trick" was based on their own assumptions. It won the contest.

To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about witholding. I love O'Henry and Sake stories, and they walk a very fine line of witholding. I believe, like any rule, it can be broken without penalty. You just need to be clever about how you do it.


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MartinV
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Ok, this thread makes sense now.
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Grayson Morris
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Osiris, I've read the story in question, and I didn't have any problem at all with knowing the MC's plan and having it go as he meant it to. I think in the version I read, in fact, he was leaving his plan open ("will I or won't I harm X?"), and my comment was to remove the waffling because it seemed out of character. As you said in a later post in this thread, it's about his internal discomfort coming to a head, and him making a statement in the only way he knows how, straight up straight on, and *I* think it works well in the story even though we know what he's planning. The fun of the scene is in the other guy's reaction -- he DOESN'T know what the MC's planning! -- and the MC's reaction to one-upping the environment.

As for mysteries, I think it was OSC who said that's the one kind of story where withholding is a basic premise of the story, a required feature not only tolerated by the audience, but expected.


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Grayson Morris
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On withholding in general: I only hate it when it's contorted. That is, when you get to the end, there's a big twist, and you go back to the rest of the story (movie, whatever) and see that the author had to contort everything to keep you from knowing much sooner. I LOVE withholding when it works on me (as "Sixth Sense" did) and I get to watch the movie (read the story) a second time and say, "yeah, see here, I could have gotten it here...and here...it was there all along, just subtle, and I missed it."

Though I guess you could say it isn't really withholding, in that case, if you wanted to mince words.


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Osiris
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quote:
I had some critiquers tell me that I gave too much away with the "hints". I had some critiquers tell me that I should just be upfront that she was a robot. Then I had some critiquers tell me that they didn't feel cheated, because the "trick" was based on their own assumptions. It won the contest.

@Philo, I liked your example story. I think it works for another reason, too. How many of us go around thinking to ourselves "I am a human, I am a human?" So why should a machine AI go around 'thinking' "I am a robot, I am a robot." So I wouldn't have felt like you were withholding because I don't think it is natural for an intelligent entity to consciously think about what 'species' it is unless it comes up in conversation.

@Grayson. Thank you! That makes me feel more comfortable with the current version (which did remove the waffling and just set it out plainly). If I get opposing issues on a critiqued issue, I usually just leave things as they are. So thats what I'm gonna do

[This message has been edited by Osiris (edited December 23, 2010).]


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MattLeo
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quote:
You make some good points though, Matt. I wonder how you can show the trap without the hero noticing it, if the story is completely from the POV of the hero, though. He sees the trap but doesn't realize it, but write it in such a way that the reader would?

Sure, that's one way. There are others. You raise an interesting point about the limitations of first person narration though.

I'd say this: the one thing that you absolutely, positively must ensure is that the reader *knows* the hero is heading for trouble and that by any *obvious* measure is going to come out the worse for it. After that you have two possibilities, whatever style of narration: either the hero knows about the trap, or he does not.

If the hero thinks he's going to lose the boss fight, then you have to make it plausible that he still chooses to go to the showdown, that there's something more important to him than surviving the fight. That's the very essence of heroism. So Superman, robbed of his super powers, still choose to face Lex Luthor with only mortal abilities at his disposal because that will save Lois. In *The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence*, the Jimmy Stewart character faces the gunfighter down because he believes somebody has to stand up to evil. In *Key Largo* , the Bogart character agrees to navigate the gangsters to Cuba so they won't be a threat to his friends back on Key Largo. Once they're at sea, it's a different game with different stakes. It's the gang with their guns against Bogie armed only with his brains and nerve.

In such cases the writer and the hero have different aims. The writer's aim is to maneuver the hero into a confrontation he'd rather avoid. The hero has some aim that makes that confrontation unavoidable. Both the reader and the hero have exactly the same information at their disposal, including the "out" that makes the hero's victory plausible, although its importance isn't obvious before the fact. In *Key Largo*, it is that the Bogie character is a war hero who's faced similar overwhelming odds before; being modest, he doesn't think its anything special, but *we* know he's special.

The second case is where the reader knows more than the hero. This is easiest to arrange in third person narration, or first person narration with alternating narrators, but it *is* possible in first person. The mystery writer Elizabeth Peters is a master of that. In her Amelia Peabody series, the protagonist, while brilliant, is almost morbidly self-confident. She'll walk into a den of assassins armed with nothing but her trusty steel shod parasol, utterly certain of her ability not only to survive, but prevail. Peters does a pitch-perfect job at setting us up to see possibilities that Amelia does not while giving Amelia a plausible "out". Time and time again we see that Amelia believes she has persuaded people by reason when she has obviously cowed them with the force of her personality.

Another method is to employ a device that introduces alternate viewpoints or pseudo-omniscient narration into the story, such as quoting fragments of "historical" sources like letters, police reports or books throughout the story, sometimes as chapter heads:

"On May 25, 1805 -- Captain Esteban orders a detachment from Mission San Gabriel to take up positions on each rim of Cañón Buitre, with orders to shoot Don Diego on sight. This leaves the mission undermanned with the closest reinforcements at the Presidio in Santa Barbara over a hundred miles away, but his assessment of Don Diego proves shrewd when Don Diego takes the bait, riding to Buzzard Canyon alone...-- *A History of Colonial Los Angeles* [Angel City Press, Los Angeles CA. 1925]"

In any case, it is *logically* impossible to support anxiety over the hero's fate when he's relating the story to us, but that never seems to stop us when the writer can get us to identify with the hero's aspirations and immerse ourselves in his POV. Once again, it is important for the author to distance the MC from himself. Heroes may start as a kind of fantasy version of the author, but they have to have an agenda that is different than the author, otherwise the hero goes to the boss fight knowing it is going to happen and *wanting* it. It is impossible then to build tension if we identify with the hero, because tension is about what we *don't* want to happen.


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philocinemas
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Several people have mentioned The Sixth Sense. FYI, there is enough information to figure it out the first time. I figured it out in the first 15 minutes. I did have a little help from hearing that there was "a big surprise", but it was a very interesting experience watching the entire movie while trying to prove my hypothesis. I like figuring out a story before the conclusion (movies and books); it gives me a strange satisfaction.

If it is any consolation, I went to see Unbreakable on opening night and didn't see the ending coming, although it was about as subtle as a train.


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Grayson Morris
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@philocinemas - that's what I loved about The Sixth Sense -- it was all there, and my assumptions blinded me to it. I often get movie twists before the audience is "supposed to," but this one eluded me.

If it had eluded me because the movie was made to withhold crucial information or contort scenes, I'd have hated it. But everything I needed to get the twist was there from the beginning, and I enjoyed re-watching the film and confirming that. The living room scene, when the shrink talks with the boy's mother? I was particularly interested to see that one again. And, indeed, it was *right there*, waiting for me to notice.


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MAP
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Sixth sense worked because the POV character didn't know the big secret. We saw everything through Bruce Willis' character, and his interpretation of events became our interpretation.

IMO, there was no withholding.


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