How do you invite a reader in and tell a story without telling too much? If you’re too cryptic, you risk angering your reader, who will toss your book across the room because he can’t make sense of the story without that key information you’re too cleverly holding back. But your reader will be equally annoyed if you give her too much help, feeding her information through dialogue, stage directions or narrative.
There’s no formula for how to do this, since every story is different. You might withhold information in one type of novel when you would reveal it another. For instance, Carolyn Wheat, author of How to Write Killer Fiction, discusses the differences between the timing of information revealed in mystery and suspense fiction.
“The tension in a mystery,” Wheat notes, “depends on information withheld from the reader,” including clues that must be interpreted and woven expertly together by the novel’s hero detective. In contrast, the suspense novel, “relies on information given to the reader; we know that when our hero’s back is turned, the old friend she’s asked for help will telephone the Nazis and give away her location.” Thus a detective in a mystery novel is always two steps ahead of the reader, while in suspense, the reader is two steps ahead of the character.
But notice that in both instances, the reader is participating in the story. And that’s the key. Letting readers question and struggle and analyze and figure things out for themselves. To do this we need to ask what experience we want readers to have, and deliver this experience through our characters’ eyes.
It’s tricky. Often we reveal too much at a certain stage in our work, because we’re still in effect, telling the story to ourselves. If you find you’re feeding the reader information too fast, or writing backstory (what happens before action begins), you may be at this stage. That’s okay, just remind yourself that in revision, you’re going to cut this information, or move it into scene.
One way to move from feeding the reader information to letting the story tell itself is to truly get under a character’s skin. This is not always easy to do because we love our characters and like parents, try to protect them from the realities of life (or maybe we as writers try to protect that part of ourselves we’re uncovering, since it’s always our story in some way). But you can’t protect your characters by explaining their feelings; you have to let them take the punches from these painful experiences so they earn getting back up and into the ring. We need to feel how our characters feel, blow by blow. Otherwise their battles are too easily won.
One exercise that may help create this immediacy is to write a few scenes with your character in the present tense. This offers little time for character reflection or backstory and gives you an opportunity to focus on your scene moment by moment, and express those moments through the senses. It’s surprising how much you can reveal this way without telling the reader anything. I used this technique in my novel The Lucky Place when I wanted to see the world through a child’s eyes. The story begins with the line “There are always secrets,” but I found it wasn’t readers I was keeping secrets from, but the character. Cassie is three when The Lucky Place opens, too young to understand the adult world around her, yet through her eyes and ears she reveals more than she knows. She might not be able to interpret it yet, but I wanted the reader to.
Readers only participate when we let them in to figure things out for themselves. When they experience the same tensions the characters experience, unravel their dilemmas and contemplate their choices as if they too were stuck smack dab in the thick of things.