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Marginal Notes

What do your Readers Know and When do They Know It?


As any good operative can tell you, information is power. Whether you’re dropping bombshells on your readers, teasing them with hints and suggestions, or letting them know ahead of time that disaster is approaching, you control their reactions by how and when you dole out the facts. So how do you best wield the power of information? What do you tell your readers, and when, and why?

It depends on whether you’re getting your tension primarily from your plot or your characters. If you’re naturally drawn to creating tension from events – if you love building a story around plot twists that shock your readers – then you want to hold things back until the big moment. But this is trickier than it sounds.

For one thing, unless you’re deliberately using an unreliable narrator, none of your viewpoint characters can know the key facts before you spring your plot twist. There was a time when the narrators of mysteries could tease readers with hidden knowledge. In The Door (1930) Mary Roberts Reinhart’s narrator regularly says things like, “It was then on Sunday afternoon that there occurred another of those apparently small matters on which later such grave events were to depend.” Today that approach to building tension seems unbearably quaint (as does her sentence construction).

But if your viewpoint characters are aware of the pertinent facts and you don’t reveal them, your readers are going to feel cheated. After all, if your readers are inside the heads of characters who know stuff, why didn’t they learn it as well?

Note that other characters, whose heads your readers don’t enter, can know key facts. It’s better if the information you reveal is woven into the story through these other characters before you spring it on your readers. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy knows Mr. Wickham is a scoundrel and blackguard but doesn’t warn anyone because he doesn’t want to expose his sister to scandal. So when Wickham seduces Lydia Bennett, it comes as a stunner to both family and readers -- but not entirely. The truth about Wickham’s shameful history explains the bad blood between Darcy and Wickham that readers had blamed on Darcy. The information about Wickham’s character was part of the world of the story. Readers simply didn’t recognize it for what it was.

That’s another advantage to withholding information until you spring it on your readers – it gives you a chance to give new meaning to events your readers have already seen. Perhaps the best example of this is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. For most of the novel readers believe, along with Mrs. de Winter, that Maxim loved his former wife and still mourned her. When they discover that he despised her enough to kill her and is terrified that her body will be found, everything they’ve seen up until that point takes on a new meaning. Any plot twist can reshape the story going forward, but it’s particularly powerful when a twist reaches back and reshapes what’s already happened.

If you draw most of your tension from your characters rather than your events, then you might want to reveal key information early on, especially if that means letting your readers know that the characters are headed for disaster. The eventual train wreck will come as less of a surprise, but what happens is much less important than how it affects the people your readers have come to love. Watching your characters heading toward the cliff is enough to keep your readers on the edge of their seats.

Even when you let your readers peek behind the curtain, you can’t tell them everything. (SPOILER ALERT) In the prologue to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, readers learn that Voldemort is alive and scheming to get his body restored. So for the entire story, readers are watching for him to spring out of the woodwork. But when it finally happens, we find that the person trying hardest to protect Harry is the one who betrays him. The conflict readers have been dreading comes, but it comes from an unexpected direction.

I recently worked on a romance in which the couple live together for many months before the reader discovers that she has bipolar syndrome. Since he wants a family and her medication prevents her from having children, it’s no surprise that the news breaks them up. The revelation is unexpected, but also feels unfair, since she knew she had the condition for most of the first half of the story. I suggested that the author reveal her heroine’s mental condition early on, so that through all of their magical, wonderful months together, readers know that she and her lover are headed for an explosion. The more their love grows, the more readers dread the eventual breakup.

Perhaps the best example of revealing information early in the story to create tension from how it affects characters (MORE SPOILER ALERTS) is Elizabeth George’s What Came Before He Shot Her. At the end of the previous book, With No One as Witness, Helen, the wife of the main character Inspector Linley, is murdered in a random shooting. What Came Before He Shot Her is exactly what you might expect – an exploration of the life of the young man who killed her. Readers know from the beginning – from the title, in fact – what the ending will be, but the development of the character draws them in.

So whether you’re trying to throw your readers with an unexpected event, or using their expectations to slowly build their concern for your characters, pay attention to how you dole out your information. Just time it right and don’t cheat.