What to Reveal / What to Withhold

Last week we discussed Incorporating Backstory, and today I’m wanting to discuss something similar.  Now when I say what to reveal, or what to withhold, I’m obviously not talking in specifics.  Everyone’s story is different , nor is there any exact “formula”.   As noted last week, though, a good barometer is whether what you’re sharing carries pertinence to the story.  Is it needed?  Are you actually going to build from it?

But, here’s another question for you: have you hooked your reader to your character in the first chapter?

That might not be a question that’s easy to answer, or maybe right away you’re nodding your head like one of those ‘bobble-head’ dolls.  If you’re that confident that you made your main character come across, may I suggest another look at your manuscript.  You may have revealed just the necessary amount of information to attach and pull in a reader, but keep this in mind:  you know our characters better than anyone.

Maybe you wonder:  how is that a bad thing.  Here’s the answer:  you risk having loop holes.  Because you know the character so well, after all you spent the course of an entire novel with them, you know how they think, act, and what their backgrounds are, that sometimes we believe this all comes across clearly when it does not.  This is where having a trusted beta reader look at your work is such a benefit.  This provides another set of eyes, a fresh perspective.  They don’t know your character as you do.  It’s up to you to reach out of your novel, with your words, and yank them in by the collar of their shirt!

Reading a novel should be a pleasurable past time,
not a laborious mining expedition.
Maybe there’s is a higher risk of withholding pertinent character information for those of us who write in the mystery, thriller or suspense genres?  We’re use to filtering in elements, and clues for the story line.  But, if we’re not careful, this can cross over to our characters resulting in unnecessary allusiveness.  We could think this will pull the reader in to get to know more about them.  This is far from the truth.  Reading a novel should be a pleasurable past time, not a laborious mining expedition.  And if you don’t lay out the necessary character details upfront in the first chapter, you risk losing “the-what’s-at-risk” factor.

Maybe it’s not even something that we’re aware we’re doing.  But I suggest stepping back from your novel for a while before re-approaching it with a fresh set of eyes.  Try to analyze what you’ve conveyed.  Your character is tired, why?  Your character is afraid of the other character in the scene why?  Now, I’m not saying dump info in here, but again sprinkle in the necessary spice to hook your reader.

How do we ensure that we’ve included enough without overdoing it?

Don’t take my words as meaning that we should expose our character in gross detail, laying out streams of data on their personalities, and backgrounds.  That’s not what I’m suggesting, not even close.  But if we didn’t know them intimately would we find ourselves pulled to them, and caring about them?

For example, none of us want to see other people get hurt, even if we’ve never met them.  But do we carry on in our life anxious about their welfare?  Not usually.  We worry and think about are those we’ve come to know – friends, family, co-workers.

The same is true with our writing.  We have to make our reader love our characters enough they want to come back to find out their story.  We want them torn over what’s happening to them.  We want them flipping pages late at night to reach the ending.

So what about you?  How have you harnessed the balance of knowing what to reveal and what to withhold?


  1. I am a beginner at this but know whT I like as a reader. If there is no suspense and I can figure out who did it then I am done. Like cards. Keep one in the hole. Good post Sassy
    Check out my new post. The Bully at http://characterswellmet.blogspot.com

  2. There is a place for backstory. It can be added to the book but delivered in unique ways. I started researching ways to do it and it's best to feed it in.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. I'll be sure to check it out Regge.

    LM, the best of success with it :) I think it's a facet of the craft that can always be examined by the writer, and be tightened and improved. that's my opinion though...

  4. I think what is most important is to show and not tell. That builds up suspense and evokes stronger emotions from the readers.

  5. Maria, I definitely subscribe to "show, don't tell" as well. But sometimes, IMO, a flash to background is needed to help further solidify things. It doesn't have weighed heavy, and in fact, should be succinct, and sprinkled in only when necessary. Thank you for your comment :)

  6. Another great post, Carolyn. Good advice that I will definitely keep in mind as I continue to work at improving my writing. I look forward to reading what insight you have in store for us next.

  7. Thank you Sharkbaitwrites (Sharky) :) And thank you for the blog follow as well.

  8. Great post, Carolyn. I believe that "background" is a necessary evil, without it our characters are just cardboard cutouts. Yet as you say, we need only sprinkle the background in to our stories. Too much at one time and we risk losing our readers.

  9. Thank you, Ken. It's definitely a balancing act.

  10. This is a great post, Carolyn. I always have problems with my main character (either I withhold too much or I end up making her unsympathetic.) This happened in my first novel, and now, after an editor's critique, I learned that the same is true for my second one. :(((((((

    I guess my problem is that I don't want to make my protagonists "perfect", so I give them flaws that apparently bug some readers... I'm going to try your suggestion to fill in the details and not assume the readers will "get her". Maybe this will help (I hope so!)

    Thanks for the tips!



Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to make a comment.

Popular posts from this blog

A Promotional Tool that Makes Sense

Make the time to Play #AuthorTip

12 Things You Need to Know for Self-Publishing Success