Q: Dear Ms Cowless - I am struggling to make what should be a simple decision, and I'm stuck because I can't make it.
Basically, I have my Antagonist sitting down having a catch-up meet with his top guy to discuss the direction of their plans. The Antagonist is using the skills and abilities of his top man to exact his revenge. The reader will be carried through the story and will see the good guys caught on the back foot, i.e. they obviously have no idea about the impending act, but the reader will if I choose to have the antagonist and his top man discussing it. On the one hand I don't see a problem with having the two characters discussing everything in detail about what is to come on their side, but on the other there's a strange part of me that asks the question "Does this spoil the story in some way for the reader to know beforehand certain events before they happen?"
Does this ruin the story? Should I have the conversation limited from the reader's perspective, so that they will know something is coming, but they won't know what?......or like most thing with writing, is it the choice of the author, i.e. me?
A: Dear boy, I think it depends whether you want the main driver of the story to be
a) mystery - i.e. us, the readers, slowly discovering, along with the protagonist, that they have such an enemy, then why, then what they can do about it, and then watching what happens when the protagonist tries to act on the knowledge. Or is the main driver
b) suspense - i.e. us, the readers, knowing the what/why of the antagonist's motivations at the start, and then watching as the protagonist slowly discovers what we already know - that he has an enemy - and trying to get to grips and act on the knowledge.
David Lodge's The Art of Fiction is very good on the difference. They're both perfectly good kinds of story, most stories use both, and which you want to use at this moment is up to you.
However, I think that scenes are never convincing if the narrative could tell me things, and just witholds them. Take a simple example: if we have a scene with the antagonist (The Colonel) and henchman (John), then it feels very artificial to be in John's PoV, to the point of being told, say, "The Colonel's face was getting paler, his hands were twitching, and John knew he was about to lose his temper" ... but then to have really important information that John would be thinking about, just not conveyed. Even if you don't give us a thought of John's quite so directly, if the scene is basically locked into John's PoV, the reader will sense if things are being artificially witheld, and feel manipulated. If you don't want us to know things, in other words, don't put us in places where we'll rumble what you're doing.
So I think if you give us a scene of this sort, but need to withold crucial info, then you have to work with the further-out psychic distances (and Self-Editing Course graduates will know what I mean). If you convey the scene in long-shot, as it were, not going inside heads too much, or at least not deep inside them, then it feels natural that we don't have access to thoughts and understanding that at the moment you don't want us to have. After all, the dialogue might convincingly be quite elliptical (are they worried about being bugged, perhaps?), so that we can sense something is up, but don't know what (mystery), and so are waiting to find out what happens next (suspense).
But there's another issue: it doesn't work to make your narrative routinely operate from deep inside viewpoint characters' heads, so we get thoughts, feelings, passions, intuitions ... and then suddenly refuse to, two-thirds of the way through the book, because it's inconvenient to you as the storyteller. Readers, again, feel cheated. If one aspect of the narrative needs to be like this - long-shot, bordering on the "objective"m say - then you need to build that in from the beginning. We need to be accustome already to this being one of the ways that this narrative works. As this post explains, you can do just about anything with your narrative, as long as you educate the reader in how it works from the beginning.
But, of course, small amounts of the right kind of information, dropped like sweets, lure us onwards through the forest like few other things. This post and the links in it analyse how that can work.
For more of Jerusha Cowless, click here.