Tuesday, January 02, 2007

This Bears a Closer Look

So, I was off reading about Elizabeth Bear’s New Year’s Day thoughts, and came across this series of thoughts. Amid them, she discusses the proper placement of story elements and their use in developing the story for the reader. I’ve quoted the relevant bit below (but read the original in case I’ve mussed it up):

For example, here I am in chapter three, about to reveal something I probably would have tried to hold onto for later when I was less experienced, trying to create false tension through mystery, or save up something that's actually not such a big deal for a big reveal. (Luke. I am your father.)

And part of the problem here is that I'm working in well-trodden tropes on this one. …[O]nce upon a time I might have made the mistake of trying to conceal that what I had here was a derelict generation ship, and save it up for some kind of big reveal at the end. But isn't it more interesting if we know that going in, like we know that the lowly servant girl is somehow related to greatness, and then we can continue layering reveals and reversals on top of that?

That's what I mean when I say, shoot the whole deal. Get it out there. Get it on the page. Don't hold it back for a [surprise] ending, because then what the hell else do you have to construct a story with?

Nobody likes self-conscious coyness.

Now, I think there’s a question here of whether or not the particular details in question are germane to the essence of the story, or if, as in many mysteries, the story turns around a lack of a particular piece of information. I can think of any number of Agatha Christie’s works that quite successfully, with misdirection and even untrustworthy narration, kept information from the reader until you reach an “aha” moment at the end.

I’m not saying that Elizabeth doesn’t have a point, or that she doesn’t know more about this than I, given our relative levels of experience. But I do think that there is a place for this sort of withholding. I think I did it successfully in “I.P.A.N.E.M.A. Girl” (though we’ll see what the markets have to say about that), and I’m sure that I’ve read it any number of times in Ed McBain, Christie, etc.

My question is: When is it appropriate, to the telling? What factors play into that decision? (Or is this always a “game-time” call?)


Kelly McCullough said...

Interesting. A lot depends on what kind of story you're constructing, how much the lead characters know about what's going on, and what your POV is.

I tend to work in fantasy where a mystery in which the characters don't know what's going on at every level. The process of the characters coming to understand the problem is as much a part of the plot as it is of the backstory or the world building.

It never makes sense to keep secrets from the reader for the sake of secrets, but it often makes sense to keep secrets from your characters, which can mean keeping them from the reader due to POV or other issues. Also, there are all sorts of things that are more or less powerful or dramtic depending on where and how they are revealed. Sometimes something that's not going to mean much in chapter 3 can be huge in chapter 5 or 8 or 1. So, it's almost entirely situational.

Anonymous said...

Oo, Kelly, nice thought. The need to keep secrets from the characters may be the key answer to my question. That functions within the framework of the story, not in the framnework of the story-reader conversation. No one likes to be lied to, and that is effectively what omission would mean in the lastter context, whereas the lack of knowledge is expereinced vicariously when you use the former structure.

Kelly Swails said...

Sean: yeah. What Kelly Y said. I also think it depends on what genre the story is: a literary novel will not keep "the big secret" because usually the secret is the driving tension of the novel, whereas in a mystery or thriller, you're constantly building towards that "a-ha" moment. That applys to the fantasy/sci-fi genre as well, because within that genre are the literate fantasists (like Vandermeer or Wolfe) and the mystery fantasists (like Brust and Butcher).

Don't you love writing? Any question you have can be answered with "It depends."

Naomi said...

I think the short answer to this is, "It works a lot better in a short story." My tolerance for obviously withheld information wears out before your average novel is going to get around to the Big Reveal.

I read Never Let Me Go a few years ago. It was marketed as a literary novel (and the author was definitely literary) but it was definitely SF. I found the coyness about what was going on in the world to be irritating and distracting: as a genre reader, I guessed the dark secrets of the society by about page 25, and wanted the writer to reveal what I'd figured out and get on with the story. (I had a lot of frustrations with that book, actually, but that's a separate rant.)