Mountain hiking is one of my favorite summer activities. It puts me on the mountain whenever I can’t ski. But there’s one thing that almost always frustrates me about hiking: The False Peak. As I hike up the steep slope and look in front of me, there are times when it appears as if I’m approaching the top. I can see the mountain curve up ahead with nothing but clear sky behind it. “I’m so close,” I tell myself. “Just keep going this little bit farther.” Then, I’ll get to what I think is the peak, only to realize the mountain has tricked me… there is more to climb. Sometimes a lot more.
Writing is no different. As we write our books, our tales are just like a mountain (see Freytag’s Plot Diagram – it looks like a mountain). We start our readers with easy level walking – introducing our characters, giving a brief show of what their world is and how they live their lives.
Then we, the writers, give our characters a conflict. We send them up the mountain, and the plots grow thicker and thicker. We show our characters’ inner fears and thoughts. We put them through their paces with difficult events and actions. And then, as our characters solve their problems, they reach the top of the mountain and have that easy downhill walk back to the car.
This is a simple idea to understand, but far too many times the green circle and blue square writers think they can manipulate this.
You can’t. Ever.
Most writers call this issue the Rate of Reveal – how much information does the author give, how quickly, and in what part of the book? Writers make a gigantic mistake when they withhold information from their readers. There is never a reason to withhold information. Ever. Really, it’s a form of lying by omission.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the worst offender. Sherlock Holmes knows loads of information that he never shares with the reader (nor other characters until his formulaic monologue at story’s end). Holmes listens to a crime victim, or he looks once around a crime scene, and then he monologues about who the perpetrator is and what random clues he used to deduce that conclusion. Most readers think, “Wow, Sherlock Holmes is brilliant. I would never have noticed that.” But what the reader doesn’t stop to realize is that there’s no way they could ever have noticed it because the information was never given to them. (For a wonderful parody and mockery of Doyle’s Holmes, read Mark Twains “A Double-Barrel Detective Story”).
Small side note: there is a Sherlock Holmes story in which Holmes convicts a man based on a type of ash from a cigar that had been sitting outside for over a day. Holmes sees the ash in the dirt and immediately deduces the criminal. Egregious! This isn’t brilliance or a plot twist – this is withholding (ridiculous and far fetched) information from readers, who didn’t even know the criminal was a smoker before Holmes pronounced judgment. This is bad Rate of Reveal.
Most often, writers who violate this rule and withhold information defend their work by saying, “There’s a twist at the end.” This is also a lie, a cheap trick. Holding back information from the reader does not make a twist. A good twist comes when you’ve given the reader ALL the information, but made the characters (not the reader) follow another trail.
The proper rate of reveal comes when the character and the reader are on the same page (no pun intended). If a reader is confused, so must a character be. If the character knows something, so must the reader. If you ever have to say, “That comes out later in the story” or “I’ll get to that in the end of the story” – or, really, in any way have to defend the order of plot events – that’s a huge indicator that you’re not revealing information to the reader at the correct time and place.
Reverse dramatic irony (when the character knows more than the reader) is a literary sin. Even dramatic irony needs to be used sparingly. And if the reader knows more than the character, you as the author should be asking yourself why the character doesn’t need to know and why the reader does.
Remember that your reader is hiking up the mountain with your characters. Take them all up the mountain together, step by step, with the path clearly in front of them. Sure, the path can go into a dark cave or around a blind curve. Your characters can hike in the dark. But they shouldn’t be able to see in the dark while your reader stumbles on every bump. However the path may go, give your reader no lost hikers, no dead ends, and no false peaks.