Authors must learn how to conceal information

If you pick up what you hope will be a fabulous novel and discover the entire story is on the first page, you’ll feel cheated. You were expecting to be scared, puzzled, enchanted, inspired, or excited with a darn fine page-turner of a yarn.

When you read the most important information first, what do you have? If you said “news story,” you’d be right. Between the headline and the lead (some people spell that “lede”) in the first paragraph or two, you will get the gist of what happened.

Wikipedia graphic

This is why news reporters use what’s called the inverted pyramid style of writing, that is to say, the important information comes first. The story’s position on the newspaper page, the size of the headline, and sometimes the accompanying photographs also tell you the relative importance–in the editor’s eyes–of that story in the news of the day.

Newspaper readers and TV news program viewers are generally expected to be like the 911 dispatcher: important information first. If there’s a dead guy on your front porch, you don’t tell the dispatcher about the dinner had and movie you saw on your way home before finding the dead guy.

The readers of novels and short stories expect teasers early on, but not the ending of the story. So, the author is concealing most of what s/he knows during the writing process. Writers must figure out how to do this early in their careers so that in spite of hiding nearly everything they appear not to be hiding anything.

So, while being careful of what s/he says, a writer is also careful of what s/he doesn’t say. That is, writers learn how to lie and conceal smoothly. The novel is a juggling game wherein the author is constantly thinking, “When should I say X?” Obviously, authors have to provide clues or the entire novel won’t seem believable when the reader gets to the end. But, if the clues are clumsy, the reader won’t bother to go to the last page because they figured everything out half-way through the book.

Many writing teachers advise starting the story as close to the ending as possible. One reason for this that it keeps superfluous material out of the book. Another reason is that it focuses the writer on moving the plot forward toward that ending with as few unnecessary  (and often boring) side trips into stuff that doesn’t matter.

While concealing information from the reader, the author has to play fair. S/he can’t have an otherwise smart detective fail to ask a witness or a suspect the most obvious question any detective would ask. And, if the author is writing from one character’s point of view, that character can’t selectively leave things out their narrative while in the process of planning to do them: that’s not natural.

Like all liars, a writer can’t get caught. Right, they never swore to tell the truth, just to give you a story that looks like the truth. The savvy reader knows, of course, that the author will be guilty of the continuous sin of omission beginning on page one.  But then, that’s what the reader wants.

Malcolm

If you have read my novel “Fate’s Arrows,” think back about the things that I did not say about my main character Pollyanna until the end of the book. 

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."

2 thoughts on “Authors must learn how to conceal information”

  1. The only thing worse than all the information in the first chapter is all the information in the first plus last chapter because you read the whole book and wonder why you wasted your time. Worst of all, is if they never give you the information, and you’re left wondering what the heck happened.

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