I recently RT’d the following message because it is a concern I’ve had before: @matociquala, @stillsostrange: Withholding obvious information from the reader/viewer/player is not actually narrative tension. The resulting Facebook comments reminded me that (back in 2007) I posted a blog post on this very topic. Since it’s no less relevant now, I’m reposting for my current readers.
I always thought there was nothing more frustrating than an “I’ll know it when I see it” answer, but I’ve found something…it’s when that’s the answer you give yourself. I recently did some critting (multiple authors and both novels and short stories) where I raised an issue with POV and the author hiding secrets. I thought it was simple: if you’re in someone’s POV, you know what he/she/it knows. Finding out later that they knew something important they didn’t reveal is just frustrating to me because it feels like author intrusion. If I’m holding a big secret, you better bet it crosses my mind a thousand times a day in a myriad of ways. I might not talk about it, I might not even mention it, but how I react and what I think will be governed at least in part by the thing that’s bugging or consuming me.
I do realize not everyone is as obsessive as I am. Heck, I went over asking a friend to be a bridesmaid at my wedding so much that I thought I’d already asked her. However, while I would accept that there are people out there who can hold on to something big, some important bit of information so well that a telepath couldn’t pry it from their minds, in a fiction environment, I find it contrived. It’s a case of where the facts serve the author’s purposes just a little too well to be plausible and end up seeming a little act of goddish.
So all that seems pretty straightforward, clear cut, and without exception…
Only in the book I’m reading now, a NASCAR romance of all things, I’m not bothered by the fact that I’m sharing POV with a character who knows something he hasn’t revealed. By everything I’ve said above, it should be killing me. Yes, I’m curious as to what the big secret is, but I don’t feel the author is intruding by keeping it from me.
I’ve thought it over and I think I have the answer. The author and character are not keeping anything from me. This problem of his is on his mind frequently, but it’s in the incomplete, scattered way that such things linger. He doesn’t stop time to contemplate the fullness of the problem, but at the same time it haunts him. He never sits back and says, “I’m in trouble because I will lose the family farm if I don’t manage to meet the requirements of the will by next year,” but he does think that he has a year’s deadline and that people are depending on him. (No, that’s not the problem, it’s just an example. I haven’t read far enough to discover what is really pushing him yet ;).) (And since I didn’t post this immediately, I now know the secret and it was a smooth transition from hints to knowledge.)
The point being that he is withholding information. I, as the reader, know there’s something I don’t know that he does, despite being in his head. And yet, I know enough to get the shape of the issue, I know the relevant elements, and I trust that the circumstances will be revealed in the fullness of time. Contrast that with finding out halfway through the book that the POV character has been withholding information, that he had something crucial to understanding why people were behaving as they were and it just never crossed his mind when the reader could see it. The author chooses when the reader shares the character’s headspace as well as what crosses the character’s mind. Therefore, when a character acts implausibly and the benefit goes to the plot, I see the author’s heavy hand.
It turns out the POV reveal/conceal is a lot like any other form of plot seeding for me. I want to be able to see the tracks that led me down this path, either while I’m walking or at least when I glance back over where I’ve been. If I can’t see what brought me to the current point, I feel cheated. And that feeling is not laid on the character, it’s laid on the book and on the author.
On the other hand, going back to the beginning with the “know it when I see it” issue, I think I’m right on the edge of really seeing it. People compliment me on my plot seeding, on how something that was mentioned in the beginning comes up as crucial in the end. It’s nice to hear, but I know something they don’t. It’s all instinct. I don’t really understand what I’m doing until I look back and see the plot seeding. On rare occasions I’ve had to go back and deliberately seed, but usually I find the element there waiting for me. And yet, with these kinds of questions and with seeing it both in published and in critted works, I’m starting to understand with my forebrain what my hindbrain has known all along. And once I get it to all come together? Well then I think I’ll write a mystery :D.