On withholding in fiction
I’m not a big fan of writing advice; for every “rule” I can usually think of a dozen great stories that break it with aplomb. But I liked this tweet of Laura J. Silverman’s very much, as it is something I am guilty of and have been working to overcome:
Writing tip: ask yourself why you are withholding information from your reader. You might think it's adding tension/suspense, but most of the time it's only adding confusion.
There is a beauty in understatement and allusion. There is nothing like the magical sensation of a story’s meaning slowly unfolding, or the excitement of an unexpected twist. But too often these things happen at the expense of the reader, and in trying to win them you lose them utterly.
My most excellent developmental editor once put it succinctly: never be coy with what your POV character knows. They can be clueless, confused, wandering around in some nonsensical wonderland, not even knowing their own name; they can be deceitful, lying, two-faced masterminds mucking with everyone and everything. But the reader should always know what they know. The unreliable narrator is only exciting if the reader knows they’re unreliable; devilish machinations, breathless discoveries, only thrill if the reader is in on them.
As for withholding other information – setting, time, etc. – every writer and every story will have a different rule of thumb. I’ve generally found that when I just feel like I’m really spelling it out is the point where readers are able to follow along. Any more withholding and I’m losing them. It can feel strange, to have to be so explicit about what feels like basic truths, but we are far too close to our own work. Of course it all feels obvious to us: we know the landscape of our stories for miles past their borders and the entirety of our characters’ histories. Readers have no such insight.
To rephrase the tweet: what do you gain from withholding? What does it accomplish, versus spelling it out? If you can’t think of a reason quickly, then there’s probably no purpose to it – and a confused reader is rarely a good thing. (There’s a reason why experimental fiction tends to be very short; most readers will not soldier on for pages of the stuff.)
I think of story writing now in terms similar to academic essay writing. In a sense, a story is an argument for seeing the world in a certain way. As I would with any academic paper, I make sure my thesis is clear, and that I have enough proof to make a reader believe it.
(You can check out more of Laura’s writing advice on Twitter – she’s @LJSilverman1)
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