Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My Rules for Withholding Information

One of the self-imposed rules I set for myself some time ago was that I wouldn't use the withholding of information to build tension. In other words, I wouldn't end a scene like this:

Burgundee Le Blanc waited in the dark chamber as Piotr's footsteps approached. Piotr had been drinking all night, and now he seemed to be stumbling down the hall, occasionally leaning against the walls for support. When he got to his door, Burgundee could see his shadow obscuring the light that streamed in through the narrow crack near his feet. He fumbled with his keys before turning the lock and entering. Burgundee cocked her pistol and aimed.

According to my rule, if I wrote a scene like this, the next sentence would have to describe whether or not Burgundee hit or miss her target.

My selection of the rule--and really the selection of any rule--was sort of arbitrary. For me, the technique felt too manipulative. Whenever someone did it to me I tended to get angry and give up on the story. (Do you hear that season finale directors?!?!) I guess I didn't like it because it felt like a way-too-effective technique that required way-too-little creativity.

But, to some extent, I have changed my mind.

To some extent.

As I write lately, more and more, I find myself withholding information because revealing that information later seems more effective. It has more emotional power behind it. Some reveals work better if I take more time to set them up and really show why they are so meaningful. I think in some ways this is related to earning my emotions, maybe. Having a scene with someone crying doesn't usually have much emotion involved unless you have already taken the reader through the journey to show all the steps that led the person to cry.

So, if I was writing the scene about Burgundee and Piotr now, it might go something like this:

Burgundee Le Blanc waited in the dark chamber as Piotr's footsteps approached. Piotr had been drinking all night, and now he seemed to be stumbling down the hall, occasionally leaning against the walls for support. When he got to his door, Burgundee could see his shadow obscuring the light that streamed in through the narrow crack near his feet. He fumbled with his keys before turning the lock and entering. Burgundee cocked her pistol and aimed. She had never shot a gun before, but she felt this opportunity was worth the risk. After all, what was the worst that could happen? She could miss, and Piotr could wrestle the gun away from her--he had already overpowered her once the night before. Maybe he would even kill her and ensure that she never tell anybody about him coming into her room and fondling her bedroom slippers. Would death be so bad after what he had done? And there was the alternative. She could miss and get caught and sent to a lifetime of prison, probably sharing the same tiny cell with her evil sister Piminy. She imagined the look on Piminy's face, finally getting the satisfaction of knowing that Burgundee was just as corrupt as she was. Piotr flipped on the light. Burgundee pulled the trigger. The bullet went into his stomach and he doubled over in pain.

So, I could withhold the information if I thought I could use the extra time to give more meaningful information. I try to make up for it by not using the technique in a "cliffhanger" sense, and hopefully the way I construct such a scene doesn't keep a reader from wanting to skip the sentences between Burgundee aiming and Burgundy firing. Maybe that's what I'm getting caught up on. I don't ever want to use filler (either pointless information or blank space) to create tension because readers will probably grow impatient due to the junk I'm feeding them. Instead, if I withhold information I want it to be because it helps the reader by getting them set up to better understand the situation and feel the power of what's happening.

Anyway, I do find this to be a different way of working. Often, lately, I'm breaking up scenes and trying to put good material in between so that the reader gets more emotion when the scene's true end finally does occur. And I try to do it in a way that doesn't feel like I'm dangling any sort of carrot. I don't necessarily want the reader to feel the tension as a result of my withholding. The tension should come in other ways.

In other news, I finally solved a problem I've been having in Chapter 3 of Cyberlama. In my revisions, I kept skipping over this section because it was so very boring, and I didn't know what to do about it. But this week, I took the two women involved out of the tea room where the scene used to take place and moved them to the National Aquarium of Baltimore. Then, instead of having them part ways, I have one woman invite the other woman to her apartment where they both kind of get naked. Go me!


  1. KIND OF get naked? *stifles giggles* That will be an interesting scene! So why an Aquarium?

    Anyway, about your post. I didn't feel a need to skip to the end of that second scene at all. I didn't feel like you were pulling any sort of "stunt" to drag stuff out. You were giving me some really interesting MOTIVATIONAL (see Scott's post from yesterday, haha) things about the character in such an interesting, intense spot, and I think that's a fun thing to do. Scott does that all the time. At least he did in Cocke & Bull. I loved how he did that. He'd pull stuff out for a long time and I didn't mind at all. Everything else was so interesting and focused on character that I felt even if I DID know how plot stuff worked out, it would be twice as interesting and essential if I understood the characters FIRST, so I'd keep reading all the interconnecting scenes with voraciousness.

  2. Hi Michelle! :)

    My characters were in Baltimore, and so I had to tap into the very little information I had about Baltimore (I went there once for a graduate school interview), and I remember the aquarium. That's why I chose it.

    Yes, what you said about something being more interesting if you understood the characters first is what I'm trying to tap into. I find that the more I write the more able I am to make my stories longer, and I think it's because I feel better about taking the time to lay out the information for my readers. I think I'm more able to create emotion over time than I was, say, two years ago.

  3. I would've given the color and material of the bedroom slippers, but that's just me.

    The last book I wrote was a detective novel, so I kept a lot of information from the reader in order to maintain the mystery. It was really hard for me to do, because I like to just put everything out there for the reader and hope the strength of the writing and the compelling nature of the characters is enough to keep people reading. Certainly I don't like the fake "cliffhanger" type stuff. But on the other hand, I'm more interested in different ways of grouping narrative elements and I'm thinking more in terms of Chekhov's Gun, of referencing things without explaining them. But I also still, as Michelle mentioned with Cocke & Bull, like to interrupt action scenes with flashbacks so that the current action has both plot and character relevance. I may be getting tired of that technique, though. Hard to say. The book I'm writing now seems pretty linear, and I'm not sure where tension and conflict are coming from.

    Nabokov wrote a novel (I cannot for the life of me remember the title just now) where the first sentence is something like, "Once there was a man who fell in love with a woman, lost her and died unhappy." He then goes on to tell this story and you'd think that with all the essential mystery gone right from the start, it would be a dull book, but you'd be wrong.

    I am rambling. Also I am flattered when Michelle says nice things about my writing. And sort of embarrassed.

  4. Lately it seems like the majority of the revisions I make involve decisions about grouping narrative elements. It's surprising how helpful that is to me right now. I guess it has to do with the idea of telling a story in a smart way rather than just putting the information out there--how I used to work. I keep saying I'm going to go linear, but I never do. Apparently, I think in flashback.

  5. I'm attempting to disguise the flashbacks as significant detail so that the narrative has a linear, ever-forward-moving feel to it. I'm not sure if it works, but it's what I'm doing.

    My conception of a story as a left-to-right moving machine is changing into more a series of tableaus or even still lives, where I arrange subjects in front of a background. Again, I'm not sure if it works, or if it's really any different from what I've been doing and I just look at it in a new way. I have no way of knowing that. Sometimes the Big Developments in my writing aren't changes in technique at all, merely changes in how I think about technique.

  6. What exactly do you mean by "arranging subjects in front of a background"? That phrase has an interchangeable quality to it.

  7. Certainly the interchangeability is one thing I mean by that. Imagine your characters as solid objects you can move around and group as you like (including breaking some of them or throwing them away or pretending that the train sculpture is a flower sculpture or whatever). Now imagine your themes, purposes, settings, etc as backgrounds. Now ask yourself how many possible scenes you can create out of those objects and those backgrounds, expecially if you can overlap multiple backgrounds and choose which ones are more visible than others. If you're good, you can think of a lot of scenes, right?

    Which is also a way of saying, I think, that I am thinking more in terms of meaning than action. I think possibly I can do action without thinking much about it; I take action as a given so I'm focusing on a different aspect of the narrative. Is any of this making any sense at all? It's hard to talk about art, especially using metaphor like this. Writing about writing, you'd think, would be the easiest thing in the world.

  8. You can also think of the characters as the background, and the themes/ideas/settings/purposes/details as the objects in the foreground that you're grouping. Even more possibilities there.

  9. There's something very intimidating to me about being able to move the pieces of my story around so freely. For example, I don't trust the change I recently made by moving my characters from a restaurant to the aquarium. When it starts to feel random, I become suspicious, which I think has more to do with my learning style than anything. For me, I have to do the exchanges, many exchanges, before I settle on the one that feels right, the one that feels inevitable, somehow. Usually, when that happens, I'll think something like, "yes, of course, it has to be that way. That's how it would really play out." Does that make me too rigid?

  10. Scott, I adore your writing, and I am convinced no publishers have picked it up yet because they are frightened by the brilliance. Someday, somehow, it will be on shelves and I will come to a signing and give you a great big hug even if it's embarrassing because that's how I roll. I think I'll forget I even said any of this, though, but look! I remembered all that about your book. There is hope for my goldfish memory.

  11. Davin, I often think of storytelling as the process of handing information to the reader, one bit at a time. We writers get to decide which bits they see first, and we get to imply what the bits mean each time they see them. So all we ever do, really, is group and rearrange those groups and put them in a series which the reader experiences. Storytelling is, in a way, nothing more than moving the pieces around. It's just that "pieces" means more than characters and locations (it also includes themes and symbols and details and emotions and the like).

    I am inclined to say (perhaps incorrectly) that this freedom I feel to move the narrative elements around at whim comes from my long history of outlining, which is just this process of moving the narrative elements around. It's a lot harder to see the elements as movable once you've set them into the cement of a scene, I think. It's hard to get them unstuck enough to move around. But it's possible, as I'm learning with my new novel, being made up as I go along. Which I hate, but it's a valuable learning experience. Which I hate.

  12. Michelle, you are so sweet! I hope you're right. I'll also forget you said this, because my memory is...where was I?

  13. Why do I suddenly feel less confidence in the Lit Lab Brain Trust???

  14. And Scott, I tend to use an outline when I am moving pieces around also. Only I create the outline after I have written the draft. It allows me to see the whole book at once, and I do feel a little more flexibility there.

  15. Scott, I LOVE how you explained that about storytelling. What a fantastic and freeing way to look at it. I think I've been moving more toward that fluid approach for a long time. It has made a big difference in the way I write.

  16. I don't know if any of the metaphors I spew out are how I really think about writing. Maybe I don't think about it at a high enough mental level for precise language to come into play? Which is weird, considering that all I'm doing with writing is working with language. Huh.

    I started writing Chapter 4 of my WIP at lunch just now. I have only the vaguest of ideas for this chapter, but I have a short list of things I need to accomplish. None of that tells me what to put on the page, though. But I picked out some objects (four characters, bags of seed and a rusty old truck) and put them against a backdrop (war-torn DR Congo near the Rwandan border) and sent them down a rutted dirt road to see what would happen. I have no idea if this is where the scene should start; I'll know in another 1000 words or so. Hopefully.

    Wait: kind of get naked? WTF?

  17. Scott, that's the best thing about this writing job - it's just one big experiment, and it's fun! Enjoy all the messiness. :)

    I don't know what Davin means by kind of getting naked, but it makes me curious to read that scene. :)

  18. Yes, buy my book! Buy my book! Cyberlama for all! :P

  19. Actually, I meant the phrase to act as a sort of embarrassed admission, the way some people might admit that they kind of had sex or that they are kind of pregnant.

  20. Davin, I would buy your book if it was for sale... *cough*

    And, hehe, that's how I thought you meant it, but I thought it would be fun to stretch it out. Isn't it fun to be having conversations with all three of us in comments again? I hope every book launch doesn't make me so absent. :(

  21. Michelle, it has been lovely to see you around so much today! :)

    As for the cough, I'm sorry you're getting sick. You shouldn't definitely take something for that. ;P


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