How Much to Reveal in Your Novel: Withholding Information From Your Reader
I recently read a book which, although intriguing, bothered me a great deal. I believe it was one of those examples where a cardinal rule of writing fiction was broken, and, being the rule-stickler that I can sometimes (okay, always) be, I was gravely bothered the longer I read.*
This particular novel disobeyed one rule of point of view which significantly kept the reader in the dark by withholding information. The novel was written from two points of view, each one a sister. In the opening, you know that one of the sisters is a murderer, and is out to kill her sister. However, the book alternates between the two sisters’ close third person POVs. HOWEVER, despite the chosen close POV, the reader is intended to guess which sister is the killer. While this is not inherently bad, and done well, it can be captivating (think Gone Girl**), this author chose to include thoughts of both sisters at times which made each seem innocent.
Close third POV, and even omniscient third POV, should not directly mislead a reader by portraying inaccurate thoughts of the POV character.
While the story itself was interesting, I was significantly bothered by this author’s deliberate flouting of this rule. There were too many contrived “accidents” that were left deliberately vague–vague enough so the reader could believe either sister at fault, regardless of who the victim was. Now this may be a great bit of writing to be able to pull this off, but it was frustrating to the reader, and not in a way that made me want to read on because I had to know the end. Instead, I read on because it was a quick read and I was still mildly curious, but certainly not to the point where I couldn’t put the book down. I would have felt as satisfied flipping to the end and reading the last chapter.
One of the key rules of point of view, especially in a mystery, is that you cannot withhold information the POV character has from the reader. While there may be some exception to this rule in terms of an unreliable narrator, for the most part, even an unreliable narrator must reveal certain truths in the course of the story. Namely, thoughts. If an author is writing in close third person POV, and the character has a thought that is dishonest to the character–the only reason that would be done is deliberate misdirection to the reader. As a result, this misdirection succeeds in ostracizing the reader.
The broken rule in this book left me disappointed in the ending, disappointed that I had been led along a roundabout path the entire book, and, ultimately, feeling manipulated. Would the average reader have reacted this way? Well, I can’t be sure. But judging from reviews of this book on Goodreads and the fact that I bought it off the bargain bin for $0.50, it seems likely there was more than one reason that I got such a deal.
The way I see it, there are two main reasons for withholding information from the reader.
1. to create suspense
This is the biggie, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with this one. Obviously, if the narrator reveals everything up front, why would we read on? So keeping secrets in a suspense or thriller novel is almost expected. However, there are more ways to create suspense than simply withholding information. And withholding key information that the narrator (or POV character) knows is just frustrating for the reader.
One way to create suspense without withholding information would be to have a character misunderstand information and offer that to the reader. Likewise, a little bit of information could be given to the reader that can create suspense by giving the reader and character a task to focus on. As an example, I think of a mystery where the main character is reaching the wrong conclusions based on incomplete evidence, but which creates suspense as the MC tracks down the suspected killer (who is ultimately innocent).
2. to mislead
This one is a little bit trickier in my opinion. In some cases, misleading the reader is okay. Every author wants their final plot twist to wow the reader, and some deception in a psychological thriller may be necessary for that, especially with an unreliable narrator. However, as I alluded to earlier, it must be done in a way that doesn’t manipulate the reader nor lie to the reader.
In my opinion, it is not acceptable to use a character’s thoughts to mislead when those thoughts turn out to be completely unrealistic for what that character knows. Instead, omit those thoughts entirely and allow the reader to wonder from the character’s actions what they really know. That may require showing the scene from a different POV, or getting otherwise tricky. An unreliable narrator is not the catch-all to deceive the reader. The narrator must have an established reason for being dishonest, and, in most cases, the fact that the narrator is dishonest, should be clear. Otherwise, you risk ostracizing your reader and ejecting them from the very story you wish to engage them with.
Obviously, this is one of those “rules” that is more art than rule. One author may struggle to withhold information in a fair way, while another may be able to pull off a similar attempt with ease. A lot of it has to do with plot and the circumstances in the novel. And much of withholding and creating suspense depends upon the genre being written/read.
There is a good article on a book that withholds well at edittorrent.
*Let me preface this by saying that I did finish the book, and I did want to find out what happened. However, my feelings about the topic of this post distracted and annoyed me sufficiently to interfere with my enjoyment. I was reading merely to answer the questions and prove myself right or wrong, not because I was truly enjoying the book.
**The major difference between Gone Girl and this other book I read is that the truth about the characters comes out midway through Gone Girl, and the remainder of the novel is full of plot twists that withhold through different means than outright lies. It become a battle of wits filled with suspense, rather than a continuing, drawn out question of who is the liar.
So what do you think? Where is the line in withholding information from the reader? Have you ever been left feeling manipulated by a narrator/author because of information being withheld? Why?