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Author Topic: Withholding Information
Jim Aikin
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I've been working on a critique of an unpublished novel. Not, as far as I know, by a member of this forum, and I won't reveal the author's name or anything about the work. As I read, however, I'm noticing something that I'd like to get others' opinions or perspectives on.

This author tends, here and there, to withhold from the reader what I consider important information.

There are times, of course, when this is a legitimate way of building suspense. If you end a scene with, "Just then, there was a sharp knock at the door," and then start a new scene with different characters in a different location, that's not only legitimate but pretty standard technique. The reader is entitled to trust, however, that the next time the scene returns to the first situation, it will be explained who is knocking at the door!

But this author seems, here and there, to be withholding essential information -- for instance, about the magical premise of the story -- not for dramatic effect but simply by neglecting to fill in various details. Some of the details are, I'm pretty sure, omitted inadvertently, and my job in writing a critique is to say, "I'd love to see this fleshed out a bit."

At other points I suspect the author is withholding information in order to build suspense -- but it's not story suspense. That is, it doesn't leave the reader wondering what will happen next. It's "what's going on here?" suspense. The writer seems to be hoping to keep the reader guessing about the nature of the magical premise that underlies the story. Or about some element of the back-story that's mentioned casually and may or may not be important in the plot -- keep turning the pages to find out if that casual mention of what happened to the character's brother means anything, or if it was just a bit of color.

My gut feeling is that this is not a great technique, but before I address it in my critique, I'd love to hear what other writers think.

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rcmann
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Bad idea, IMO. It ticks me off and I usually don't finish the book. I also tend to recommend against it to my friends.

I suspect that some creative people do that because they think it makes them look clever, and/or makes their work intriguing. I don't think it does either one.

Most people dislike being treated like fools, talked to like fools, written to like fools, or presented with humor in such a way as to make it seem like the comedian thinks they are too stupid to get the joke.

Even more annoying, to me, are cases where the creator of a piece of art spends so much time showing off how clever they can be that they forget the ultimate purpose of presenting the art - to connect with the audience/reader/customer/subscriber.

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tesknota
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I think OSC mentioned something about this in one of his books on writing.

Withholding information is only okay if the character also doesn't know the information - that's building suspense. If the character knows what's going on, and the author withholds this information from the reader on purpose, that's building false suspense and should be avoided like the plague.

This is what I recall, so please correct me if I'm wrong.

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axeminister
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OSC says, "Suspense comes from what you know, not from what you don't know."

You can pass on that quote early, and perhaps reference it during the instances where you feel info is intentionally being withheld.

I think the separation of suspense and trickery likes where tesknota says. Does the character know? And would they naturally reveal that information at that point in the plot?

The story I'm working on now hides an important piece of information from the reader for 50-100 pages. (It's the part I'm currently writing, so I don't know the actual count.) However, it's also hidden from the character.

But... I'm dropping clues all over the place.

That to me is the ultimate. If the author can show it and still hide it, then the reader will feel good instead of tricked.

Not sure if I'm succeeding yet, but that's my attempt.

See 6th Sense and Fight Club for good examples of the clues being present during the story.

In fact, I saw recently that the pay phone that Jack calls Tyler from has a sign on it that says "No return calls". It's the very first clue that there is no Tyler!

Axe

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RyanB
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I'm going to have to disagree on the "sharp knock" scene ending. If you do it that way, the reader has one question in their mind. Who's at the door?

Have them open the door and Jim says hello, then cut the scene. Now they have a hundred questions (if you're doing your job).

I've become quite intrigued by, what I'll call, dueling chapters. I'm currently reading a book where the young male protagonist (who we are properly endeared to) is climbing in a cavern and comes upon someone who has a sword pointed at him. Scene end.

The next 2 or 3 scenes go away to develop the plot in an another (related) area. When we came back to the Protag, he jumps down off the wall/ledge and we don't learn who had the sword.

The thing is, the technique mostly worked. But only superficially, and with a cost. I was worried about the Protag, but from the unknown. It would have been more effective if I knew what the threat was (suspense from the known rather than the unknown).

Also the author essentially "cried wolf." But it took me so long to get from the village to the sheep pasture, and I saw so many interesting things along the way, that by the time I got to the pasture I wasn't so upset about the wolf crying.

But it's in the back of mind. And it's why I feel this will be an "OK" book rather than a great book.

The sharp knock scene end works. But it doesn't work well.

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rcmann
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axeminister is right. Dropping clues makes the reader feels clever if they figure it out in advance, and doesn't make them feel stupid if they don't. It gives the impression that the author respects the reader's intelligence.
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Jim Aikin
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With the knock on the door, I was making up a quick example. You're right that it could be handled a lot of different ways. Having the person at the door say "hello" would pretty much defuse the scene, IMO. It's such a bland word. The point of ending the scene with the knock on the door is that the reader doesn't know whether it's a villain, the love interest, a bleeding stranger, a cop, or what. Once you know who's at the door, the suspense level drops. Depending on the nature of the plot up to that point, of course.

But it's also true that suspense comes from what's known. The best example of this principle that I'm aware of comes from Alfred Hitchcock. Paraphrasing, because I don't have the quote handy, Hitchcock said this:

Picture a scene in a film. A man comes into a room, sits down in a chair, and reads a newspaper for five minutes. That's not suspenseful, it's boring. At the end of five minutes, a bomb hidden under the chair explodes, killing him. Now let's run the scene a different way. At the start, a different man enters, puts a bomb under the chair, and exits. Now when the man sits in the chair and starts reading the newspaper, the audience will be on the edge of their seats. Will he hear the bomb ticking? Will he get up and leave before it goes off? What will happen? Now we have suspense, and it's because the viewer knows what's going on.

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extrinsic
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From what's given, the writer appears to have a case of missed the page itis, not per se an intent to withhold. Treatment for the affliction is generally sharing one's work with a select audience to see how accessible the content is, as the writer has done.

I recommend considering showing the writer scenes where the content is fully or at least mostly realized and comparing and contrasting those scenes with scenes with content that is underrealized. That critical strategy is most persuasive from building rapport with the writer first through detailing what works by implied comparison what doesn't work, then giving a critical analysis of what doesn't work for the perceivable intended audience.

This critical method builds not only the writer's writing strengths, but the auditor's as well.

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RyanB
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Jim,

What I had in mind is the identity of the person at the door raises many questions, or creates great intrigue.

This further illustrates my point. Suppose it is someone benign, like the pizza guy. The author cries wolf and you find out later there is no wolf (I just found out that's exactly the case in the book I'm reading: the guy with the sword was already dead!)

Then suppose the person at the door is important and unexpected. There actually is a wolf! Then wouldn't it be better to reveal the identity before the scene break.

Dueling chapters is a type of information withholding. One factor has already been mentioned. Is there a valid reason to withhold this information? OSC says it's valid if the narrator doesn't know the information at the time. Otherwise the withholding might be annoying. I think switching scenes is a gray area. If you have two viewpoints you have to switch scenes somewhere. But did it have to be right there at the knock? If the reason is solely to get a superficial sense of suspense, then no, I don't think it's valid.

The other factor is whether the withholding is effective. The knock ending may be mildly effective. It may quicken the pace. But it tends to raise just one question. Good suspense will raise many questions/have multiple dimensions.

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axeminister
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Love! the Hitchcock example. Boy, that says it all.

I did a chapter/POV character switch after my big reveal, which was also a cliff hanger.

My Alpha reader hated that. So, I plan to end the chapter, as is proper with a cliff hanger, but I'm now going to go straight back to that character.

Terry Brooks used to drive me insane with his major cliff hanger switch POV character crap. I mean, yes, it did make me plow through the book and stay up late at night, but I was also annoyed at times, and others I just plain skipped ahead.

How's this for a question:

If you're going 3 chapters at a time for differing POV, should you end each 3rd chapter in major cliff hangers like Terry Brooks, or should you end chapter 1 or 2 in major cliff hangers, so the reader keeps reading, then ease off for the 3rd chapter so the reader welcomes the POV switch without angst?

Axe

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RyanB
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quote:
Originally posted by axeminister:

How's this for a question:

If you're going 3 chapters at a time for differing POV, should you end each 3rd chapter in major cliff hangers like Terry Brooks, or should you end chapter 1 or 2 in major cliff hangers, so the reader keeps reading, then ease off for the 3rd chapter so the reader welcomes the POV switch without angst?

Axe

Terry Brooks is still on my "to read" list, so I don't know exactly what you're talking about. But obviously whatever he's doing is "working" even if it's "wrong" according to whoever (like me).

If you're alternating POV's it's because they mesh somehow. So leave the reader in the best frame of mind to deal with the next POV. The questions they're pondering should intertwine with the next POV's plot line.

And don't cry wolf. As long as the resolution to the cliffhanger lives up to the promise, you're doing your job. If you can keep up that kind of pace for a whole novel, where every cliffhanger is bigger than the last and every resolution is satisfying, then I'd say you've got a good novel.

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MAP
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Hitchcock was a master at suspense. It is always a good idea to listen to him. [Smile]

I think withholding is tricky. You need to withhold a little because otherwise you get a huge info dump up front which bores a reader. So the trick is to kind of bait them along for a while until they are interested in what is going on. But you can't bait them too long or the reader will become frustrated. Like everything else, it is difficult to find the balance.

The easiest way to do this is to have the POV character not know what is really going on, like Fight Club and Sixth Sense, both awesome movies. Another of my favorites is The Usual Suspect where the POV character is unreliable, but you need to have a good reason for the character to be unreliable (which The Usual Suspects does).

But all of these examples are ones that have that one big twist in it, and not all stories have that, but every story withholds to some extent.

I think the trick is to let the POV character speak and think naturally. This way the situation is slowly revealed as the character thinks or talks about different aspects of the situation when it comes naturally into his/her mind. For example: if the POV character is a ghost, he wouldn't naturally think, "hey I'm a ghost and this is how I died and why I'm haunting these people." Instead hints of this are dropped when they become relevant as the story unfolds.

For example: the story may open with our ghost Joe sitting in a living room with a family. Maybe as the scene goes on it becomes aparrent that Joe isn't apart of the family. Then we realize that no one ever responds to Joe's snide remarks. Later he may walk through a wall. So we see Joe being revealed as a ghost as the story goes on. As the story goes on, Joe may be reminded of how he died, and maybe some hints are dropped as to why he hangs out the house. His situation and past unfolds as it becomes relevant in the story.

The problem of withholding comes when the characters aren't thinking, doing, and/or saying what they would natural think, do, and say because the writer is trying to keep a secret. Like Joe doesn't walk through walls. He uses the door for no apparent reason. Or the conversation in the room is contrived to make it seem like Joe is apart of it. This feels forced and unnatural, and it annoys readers.

I don't like withholding when it goes against the character. I need a good reason why the character is behaving in a certain way or isn't thinking about things he naturally would be thinking about. But as long as it isn't interfering with characterization, I'm okay with a little withholding. In fact I prefer it to a character spewing out his entire life story for no good reason. Everything in the story just needs to feel natural or the author's hand becomes too apparent.

I think as beta-readers we need to tell the author when we feel like too much is being with held. Because it is difficult to strike that balance between telling too much and holding too much. Writers need to know when the reader is confused or feeling cheated. That is the most important job of a beta.

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RyanB
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quote:
Originally posted by MAP:

The problem of withholding comes when the characters aren't thinking, doing, and/or saying what they would natural think, do, and say because the writer is trying to keep a secret. Like Joe doesn't walk through walls. He uses the door for no apparent reason. Or the conversation in the room is contrived to make it seem like Joe is apart of it. This feels forced and unnatural, and it annoys readers.

I don't like withholding when it goes against the character. I need a good reason why the character is behaving in a certain way or isn't thinking about things he naturally would be thinking about. But as long as it isn't interfering with characterization, I'm okay with a little withholding. In fact I prefer it to a character spewing out his entire life story for no good reason. Everything in the story just needs to feel natural or the author's hand becomes too apparent.

It's been a while since I read Character and Viewpoint so I don't remember exactly how much OSC went into this, but there are different context/frames for the narrator.

You could have 1st person past tense, where the character is telling the story as it happens (or just after each event happens), or they could be telling it years after the events take place.

If you're doing the former you can get away with Joe revealing bits of his situation over time. Not so much with the latter.

The interesting thing is readers never think "Hey, Joe is telling this in 1st person past tense as a cold retelling long after the fact. He should have revealed X at the very start." But they will intuit who the narrator is, what they know, and the context they're telling the story in. And they'll sense something's wrong if you break the rules.

As an author, you need to be consciously aware of your narrator's context.

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extrinsic
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You-all have radically different strategies for developing tension than mine. One of the reasons cliffhangers are widely deprecated is because they show a writer's hand on a story. They are transparent tension development ploys that challenge wiliing suspension of disbelief.

A cliffhanger is a kind of routine interrupted; a knock on a door, similarly, is a routine interrupted and also a visitation.

Regardless of what story shape such a scene or overall narrative takes, two principal features of such a scene are discovery and reversal. Any scene is dramatically incomplete until both have occurred. Falling off a cliff and catching onto a tree limb is both a reversal and a discovery, but it's the middle of a completed dramatic action that leaves a perhaps minor dramatic complication's want and problem unsatisfied. Surviving the cliffhanger ought as best practice lead into discovering another complication that's not a once and done, over with complication. The hero will go from the frying pan into the fire.

A knock at the door similarly is an incomplete dramatic scene. The discovery and reversal haven't taken place until who is at the door and how he, she, or it complicates those inside are revealed. Door knocks are sometimes danger at the door, routine interruption scenarios as well as visitation scenarios. Invariably, artful someone or something is at the door scenes complicate a dramatic situation. The hows and whys of the visitation need to be revealed, perhaps priorly, so the scene is complete. Then, for tension's sake, the complication's discovery and reversal of routine, the known want and problem wanting satisfaction are what artfully develops tension.

A knock at the door can end a scene if it's set up as a scene ending, if what the knock at the door means is clear, if it completes a scene's discovery and reversal, and develops a complication's want or problem.

For example, a lively party is going on inside and the neighbors have made their ire known, that the police have been called. The knock at the door then must be the police. Scene ends. Show a police squad car driving to the scene, the police talking about the nuisance call, that the house is a repeat noise ordinance offender. Return to the scene. Opening the door, the visitor is a neighbor with an assault rifle intent on murder and mayhem.

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Jim Aikin
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quote:
Originally posted by RyanB:
Suppose it is someone benign, like the pizza guy. The author cries wolf and you find out later there is no wolf (I just found out that's exactly the case in the book I'm reading: the guy with the sword was already dead!)

The ultimate form of this is, of course, the highly dramatic opening scene that is soon revealed as, "It was only a dream!" Any author who descends to actually using a dream as a story opener should be tied down and force-fed raw goose liver until he or she bursts open at the seams.
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Jim Aikin
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
A cliffhanger is a kind of routine interrupted; a knock on a door, similarly, is a routine interrupted and also a visitation.

Regardless of what story shape such a scene or overall narrative takes, two principal features of such a scene are discovery and reversal. Any scene is dramatically incomplete until both have occurred.

I'm not familiar with the theory of discovery and reversal, and I'm wary of theories, because they can lead the writer to hit material with a ball-peen hammer trying to bang it into a shape that conforms with the theory, when it was perfectly okay to begin with. I would suggest that a scene should always move the story forward in some way. This could be discovery, reversal, or something else -- a Joycean epiphany, for instance.

I think the term "cliffhanger" may be a bit pejorative, because it raises the specter of "The Perils of Pauline." (If you don't know the reference, this was a well-known series of movie shorts in the '30s, which always ended with Pauline in some sort of awful danger.) I would prefer to take a more general view, which is that at the end of a scene the story should be moving forward. It should not be resolved! We want the reader to keep turning the pages, wondering what will happen next.

The lack of resolution could be occasioned by an unexpected and deadly peril (the literal cliffhanger), it could be an unexpected revelation (that Uncle Frederick is broke, not rich), or almost anything else. The point is to keep the reader engaged.

To continue the last rather silly example, if Uncle Frederick reveals that he's a pauper and his niece, at the end of the scene, says, "Oh, that's all right. I'm sure somehow we'll make out just fine," then the tension is lost. The reader has no reason to go on reading. If the scene ends _before_ that line, however, the reader will be far more inclined to turn the page and go on reading. If that same line begins the next chapter, it's much better, because now the reader is motivated to find out exactly how Frederick's niece plans to resolve the problem.

It's all about pacing.

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LDWriter2
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Interesting, provocative and educational discussion.

I won't comment on what others have said even though it's been good.

But I've been told by pro editors and writers its bad to withhold information even though that seems to be for short stories.

But in novels it happens all the time as mentioned. I've read books where the cliffhanger which has to wait until we learn about another set of characters or two sets. Some writers mix up if the person at the door is a pizza man or an enemy attacking or someone with bad News so you never know what is going to happen. It could be a danger scene or not as I said you never know.

I read one book by someone who has out quite a few books, including at least two other series. But in this book the author held back two important pieces of information until the end. For one the writer left hints and I pretty much figured it out but either the hints for the other one went over my head or the author just surprised it on us. A good writer but I thought "Hey, you;re not suppose to do that". I haven't read any other books by that writer but not for that reason. It alone wouldn't be big enough for me to stop reading.

I'm not sure if anyone mention that sometimes something is with held but as in this case there are hints so you know something is up and might be able to guess.

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rcmann
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Sometimes you have to withhold, since a big part of the plot is watching the character figure things out in order to know what to do to solve the main conflict. But I always try to make sure that the reader knows at least a little bit more about what's going on than any individual character does. The reader doesn't need to be omnicient, but I think they should be pan-nicient. That is, they should stand high enough above the action to see the general shape of things, even if they don't see every detail.
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posulliv
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Jim, I wonder if your author is an outliner or a discovery writer.

A lot of times I make the story up without an outline, and don't really know what is going to happen until it happens. I then have to remember to go back and make sure the _reader_ knows more about the story as they read it than I knew when I first drafted it.

It's easy to miss problems because as the writer you have the full story in your head once you've finished it. Readers don't, and that's why comments like yours are so valuable. If it bothers you it will likely bother other readers. I'd be inclined to call out every instance whether I thought it was done on purpose or not. It's up to the writer to decide if the criticism is valid.

I agree with all the comments here, that suspense comes from the reader anticipation, and that surprise isn't anywhere nearly as satisfying as suspense (except when the surprise comes as a result of something the reader could have anticipated given all the writer has already told the reader).

Kurt Vonnegut (according to the Internet) wrote:

"Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages."

I tend to agree with him on this, although I wouldn't hesitate to try something different if I thought it might work.

[ June 29, 2013, 01:39 PM: Message edited by: posulliv ]

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rabirch
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quote:
Originally posted by posulliv:
Jim, I wonder if your author is an outliner or a discovery writer.

A lot of times I make the story up without an outline, and don't really know what is going to happen until it happens. I then have to remember to go back and make sure the _reader_ knows more about the story as they read it than I knew when I first drafted it.

This is a really important point, and one I've only recently identified about my own writing. I am 100% a discovery writer, so oftentimes revelations will slip in two, four, six pages in, and those revelations are not necessarily appropriately foreshadowed in the beginning, not because I was trying to be sneaky, but because *I didn't know them.*

Now that I've learned that about myself, I'm going to need to start implementing a pass back through to make sure everything that I know now is on the page from the beginning. It's actually a lot harder than it sounds, because I tend to craft very carefully and shoehorning other information in can be difficult to balance with the flow and other sentence/scene level architecture.

Did that make any sense at all?

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MartinV
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Withholding information is great when you can make it work. Of course, it's very hard to make it work.

One reason why I like 1st person POV is that the reader only knows what the POV character knows. So if that character is misinformed, the reader is misinformed. An obvious example is the movie Avatar (and all those movies that came before it but have a nearly identical core story): the POV 'knows' the native are savages that need to be eradicated. Then his knowledge changes and so does our perspective.

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Jim Aikin
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quote:
Originally posted by posulliv:
Jim, I wonder if your author is an outliner or a discovery writer.

A lot of times I make the story up without an outline, and don't really know what is going to happen until it happens. I then have to remember to go back and make sure the _reader_ knows more about the story as they read it than I knew when I first drafted it.

Good point. I had never considered the question from that angle, because I'm an outliner. The idea of writing a plotted novel without having done an outline makes my teeth hurt. If you're writing character-driven literary fiction, then sure, write a novel by just starting with a situation that seems to have possibilities. But be prepared to go through five or six drafts!

Of course, things in the story always change once I get going. When I'm halfway through, the 2nd half of the outline may have become entirely wrong, because of events I hadn't thought of when I did the original outline. So at that point I stop and do a new outline for the 2nd half.

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RyanB
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David Farland happened to post about this very topic today.

http://www.davidfarland.net/writing_tips/?a=236

In short, he says to end each chapter with a cliffhanger and begin each chapter with a hook. And if I'm reading him correctly, he's blaming the need to do this on "modern audiences."

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by rabirch:
I am 100% a discovery writer, so oftentimes revelations will slip in two, four, six pages in, and those revelations are not necessarily appropriately foreshadowed in the beginning, not because I was trying to be sneaky, but because *I didn't know them.*

Now that I've learned that about myself, I'm going to need to start implementing a pass back through to make sure everything that I know now is on the page from the beginning. It's actually a lot harder than it sounds, because I tend to craft very carefully and shoehorning other information in can be difficult to balance with the flow and other sentence/scene level architecture.

Did that make any sense at all?

Absolutely. Going over the manuscript once you've completed a draft is especially important for discovery writers.
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
quote:
Originally posted by rabirch:
I am 100% a discovery writer, so oftentimes revelations will slip in two, four, six pages in, and those revelations are not necessarily appropriately foreshadowed in the beginning, not because I was trying to be sneaky, but because *I didn't know them.*

Now that I've learned that about myself, I'm going to need to start implementing a pass back through to make sure everything that I know now is on the page from the beginning. It's actually a lot harder than it sounds, because I tend to craft very carefully and shoehorning other information in can be difficult to balance with the flow and other sentence/scene level architecture.

Did that make any sense at all?

Absolutely. Going over the manuscript once you've completed a draft is especially important for discovery writers.
I'm a mixed planning-intuitive writer. Mid draft alterations caused by new realizations frequently crop up. One of my writing mentors has a process for making adjustments in order to treat missing content: often prepositioning or foreshadowing, or dramatic turns, setups, and transitions. The mentor calls places where content might be best incorporated "insertion points." Practice makes the effort of locating where and how much to develop easier, the content stronger and clearer, and makes for a more artful and fully realized narrative.

[ July 01, 2013, 06:21 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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legolasgalactica
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Brandon sanderson in his mistorn trilogy rode a fine line in this area, with his magic system and several other areas like the historical records quoted at the beginning of paragraphs. I was starting to get irritated that it wasn't explained and then we'd find out more about it which would satisfy my curiosity for a while. It wasn't until more than halfway through that it dawned on me we weren't learning any faster than the main character Min, and in retrospect I see how not knowing built suspense and explained some of the plot twists, but I often found myself trying to work it all out on my own and sometimes felt resentment that we didn't know when the other main character did. Overall, it worked to withhold some things, but he nearly crossed the line for me.
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kmsf
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I'm pretty new at this, but I've sorted missing information into two categories. The first is background to be layered in as needed without setting off "exposition" alarms. The second, from a third person limited POV, should only be that information which the current POV character lacks. Otherwise, IMO, the writer runs the risk of irritating the reader. And, quite frankly, when we read good literature we experience the story with the MC and thus have been to Mordor or Loth Lorien, etc and fought the battles ourselves.
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