Withheld Information: Or, This Crazy Plan That Just Might Work

I’m part way through Inheritance, by Christopher Paolini, and it’s got me thinking about withheld information in narratives.

Megan Whalen Turner–you’ve got to watch her or she’ll pull a fast one one you. In the three of her books I’ve read (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia) she leaves out one critical bit of information at one critical point. When it is revealed later, it changes your whole idea of a situation or a character. I loved it, once I caught on.

So I’m not sure why it bothers me so much when Christopher Paolini does something similar in Inheritance.

Here’s the scenario (spoiler-free): the point of view (POV) character is sent to take a city and end a siege. It’s hopeless, but he comes up with this Crazy Plan That Just Might Work. Only thing is, Paolini won’t tell us anything about the plan. Not during the scene in which the POV character explains it to his friends, not during the scenes in which the POV character oversees preparations, not even during the scene in which the POV character can’t sleep the night before it’s put into operation.

withheld information copy

I notice this kind of thing all over the place. To name a few off the top of my head: M. E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, the scene in which Lady Audley gives instructions to her maid, and the reader doesn’t get to hear what she says; Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones, when a chapter ends right before Alcatraz explains his Crazy Plan That Just Might Work, and we come into the next chapter as Alcatraz and Co. put it into operation.

All authors withhold information until key moments. Maybe the POV character doesn’t know it yet, or maybe the POV character doesn’t want to talk about it yet. Or maybe it’s not important to the plot, yet.

I think it bothers me in Inheritance because I can’t see a valid reason for that tactic in this case, at least not for as long as it goes on–chapter after chapter after chapter. Is it to avoid redundancy (we’re going to see how it plays out so an explanation is unnecessary)? Or is it a cheap trick to keep us flipping pages?

I don’t know. But it makes me mad.

I fear I’m doing something similar in the novel I’m revising. I try to slowly reveal that the main character’s view of the world and of his family is fundamentally flawed, but in order to keep it from being obvious from the get-go, I hold back on his motivations. I need to make it clear at the beginning what it is he thinks he’s accomplishing, and slowly show how wrong he is.

I definitely want to avoid making readers feel like I do while reading Inheritance, because honestly the withheld information turns me off the book rather than hooking me in.

When my main character comes up with his Crazy Plan That Just Might Work, I kindly have him tell his friend the gist of it before we watch it play out.

Happy Yarning!

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4 thoughts on “Withheld Information: Or, This Crazy Plan That Just Might Work

  1. Brandon Sanderson talks a bit in Writing Excuses (highly recommend this podcast for any aspiring writer) about how he dealt with withholding information in Mistborn. Basically, it comes down to a game of smoke and mirrors with the reader. In Mistborn, whenever Kelsier comes close to thinking about the real plan he’s keeping from his friends, he distracts himself so the reader doesn’t notice when we’re in his POV. In Oceans 11, the Crazy Plan that Just Might Work is outlined and the whole movie is about solving the problems that come up, but they don’t show until the end how they plan on dealing with the critical bit – how they’ll get away with the heist. Fact is, we’re distracted by all the other drama to think about that. In Oceans 12, the Crazy Plan didn’t work for me, because when the reveal is made, it made all the other try-fail cycles feel pointless to me because in reality, they’d already won.

    Good luck with the re-write!

  2. This post reminds me, actually, of a lengthy general movie review by filmcrithulk. Film Crit Hulk’s criticism was that people weren’t careful in their reveals and were so focused on surprising the reader that really, all they managed to do was totally confuse the reader. My favorite part of whole thing was that he pointed out the difference in dynamic when you’re walking down the street when this guy you’ve never met before approaches you, says he’s your long-lost half-brother, and that [they] are after him and you need to come with him right now…and when you’re walking down the street, and your brother with whom you’ve grown up with your entire life and know and love quite well runs up to you, says [they] are after him, and you need to come with him right now. For one thing, you’re a lot more likely to go with the man you ACTUALLY know. So withholding information should be used as a tool, of course, when a reveal would ruin the story…but the reveal shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself, I guess.

    Anyway here’s the full article: http://badassdigest.com/2013/06/12/film-crit-hulk-smash-the-age-of-the-convoluted-blockbuster/

    • Thanks! A few others have been frustrated by it, though, at least in the first few chapters. I think since you and I have talked about Raven during writing group meetings, you understand him the way I do, while other readers have only met him through the bare text of the story. I’m working on giving them more to go on initially, so they get to love him for his flaws the way we do. 🙂

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