Writers conceal first, then reveal (possibly)

In a news story, the important gist of the story appears in the headline and the lead. In a short story, novel, or investigative non-fiction piece, the important point(s) are concealed until the end of the book or movie. Two kinds of stories, two kinds of approaches.

Since many of our regular TV dramas were COVID-delayed going into production, my wife and I have found ourselves watching documentaries, including “History’s Greatest Mysteries” narrated by Laurence Fishburne on the History Channel 

The episode about the escape of John Wilkes Booth focused on whether or not he (or somebody else) was killed by federal troops while hiding in a tobacco barn and subsequently if any of the Booth sightings, marriages, and fathered children were real or myth.

Near the beginning of the program, we learned that the lore of several families included the possibility that Booth was part of their family trees and that this question was going to be solved once and for all by DNA analysis. Ultimately, the DNA analysis proved that the families interviewed on the program had no connection with Booth. 

We were told this at the end of the show. Had this been a news program, that information would have been at the beginning: FAMILY LORE ABOUT BOOTH RELATIONSHIP DISPROVEN BY DNA ANALYSIS. But, if the History Channel series had divulged that at the beginning, the rest of the program would have disappeared. So, they concealed the ultimate truth to keep us watching.

Likewise, a program about a professional search for the submerged remains of Shackleton’s lost ship Endurance showed an expedition into the dangerous waters of Antarctica with a powerful ship and cutting-edge equipment to locate the ship which hasn’t been found for over one hundred years.

Had this been a news story, the headline might have been: LOCATION OF ENDURANCE STILL A MYSTERY AS EXPEDITION’S EQUIPMENT FAILS. But, since the producers wanted to keep us watching, they concealed this point until the end of the program. The equipment, designed to operate at the pressure and temperature where the wreck lay all broke down. But, we kept watching, thinking the ship might be found with one last attempt. Nope.

While I can understand the need for an exciting, as-it-happened program, I always end up feeling cheated when I learn that the producers knew it failed before they started putting together their TV show or movie. I want to shout, “cut to the chase.” But then, I don’t feel that way when I read a novel because it’s more fun to go with the flow of the story than to have the author say on page one, “Everybody’s gonna dies before the last chapter, just saying.”

That spoils the story, doesn’t it? But non-fiction, hmm, I think I’d rather know the answers at the beginning and then see how those answers were discovered, news story style.

Malcolm

As I wrote “Fate’s Arrows,” I felt no remorse whatsoever as I concealed most of the story’s truths until late in the story. After all, I viewed the book as a novel and not a news report.  

Author: Malcolm R. Campbell

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of "Sarabande," "The Sun Singer," "At Sea," "Conjure Woman's Cat," "Eulalie and Washerwoman," and "Lena."