Friday, May 20, 2011

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?