In my writing circle we have had an ongoing conversation about what to tell our reader and what to withhold. I’m in the camp of Save Some Bits for Later, but appreciate holding back has to be done artfully so the reader isn’t left feeling manipulated.
When Not To Withhold Information
A good gage as to whether you can withhold information from you reader is to ask yourself whether the viewpoint character is privy to this information. If he/she knows it, the reader should know it.
You can however, withhold information from a reader if the character isn’t yet aware of that piece of information. Sixth Sense is an example of where withheld information works only because the character himself isn’t yet aware of the fact he is dead. When he learns of it, so do we.
Many new writers believe by withholding information they are providing a sense of suspense and are better able to implement a twist. I personally love being surprised and especially love writing in a twist, but know this again has to be done correctly. Here is what the authors of Self Editing for Fiction Writers suggest when you are looking to build in a surprise.
“If you have a plot development that you want to surprise, spend less space on it before you spring it on your reader. Or perhaps you could spend as much or more space on similar plot elements to mask the really important one.” Self Editing for Fiction Writers – Renni Browne and Dave King
The authors are not suggesting you withhold information, just that you shape your reader’s response to your plot. This technique is subtle but powerful.
When To Withhold Information
On the other side of the coin there are writers who withhold nothing. This is also guaranteed to upset your reader who may feel you are patronizing them. Gone are the days of long, winding, image packed, descriptions. Thank you twenty-first century ‘sound bite’ culture!
When you provide your reader with too much information, a blow-by-blow account of who is moving here and what is placed there, you run the risk of undermining the energy of a scene. Staging a scene is different from micro-managing where your reader’s eyes and attention are pulled. Staging is important, drawing out every action and response is not. Leave out the mundane and let your reader fill in the bridging details. Here again is what the authors of Self Editing for Fiction Writers suggest.
The phone rang. Geraldine walked across the room and picked it up. “Hello,” she said.
An author nowadays can simply write
The phone rang.
“Hello,” Geraldine said.
…leave the rest of the action to the reader’s imagination.
As always I would love to hear from you. Today’s question – How do you decide what to say and what to shut up about?
I’ve included below an interview with Stephen King and Audrey Niffenegger who speak about leaving something to the reader’s imagination.