3

I have often noticed this in many books and movies (mostly mysteries) that information is kept hidden from the reader. Like the character goes to some place and returns but what happens in between remains hidden from the reader.

Is that a good technique? I often feel that the reader wants to be a part of the story. For example, in a mystery, the reader wants to solve the mystery on his own. Sometimes, an important fact which could be helpful in solving the mystery is known to the protagonist but is kept hidden from the reader.

So, is hiding information like this effective? Isn't it some sort of cheating with the reader?

  • 1
    Hi Yashbhatt and welcome to Writers. This question feels pretty broad and subjective; the answer almost certainly depends on what you're writing and what the elided scene would be. (For example, nobody cares about characters having breakfast or showering or driving to work unless there's a story tie-in.) I'm going to put this on hold temporarily; please edit to focus the question a little more. And if you haven't seen our tour yet, please check it out. Thanks. – Monica Cellio Sep 5 '14 at 2:46
  • I believe I can give a helpful answer to the question as it is worded. (Though it may take a few days for me to get to it.) – Dale Hartley Emery Sep 5 '14 at 3:48
  • @MonicaCellio I have edited the question a bit. – Yashbhatt Sep 5 '14 at 8:05
  • 1
    I think the edit makes for a clear question; re-opening. – Standback Sep 5 '14 at 8:38
5

There is a balance between maintaining point of view, and maintaining suspense, which can crop up whenever your protagonist or your POV (point-of-view) character is planning ahead in any detail.

The difficulty is this: If in your story your POV character is making plans and preparations, and then afterwards he puts those plans and preparations into action, then the reader has to wade through the same essential scene twice: first in planning, then in practice. That means that the important scene, the action scene where everything's on the line, is at risk of feeling repetitive and dull.

If we stick purely to good POV practice, then the reader should really know anything important that the POV character knows. Doing otherwise creates distance between the reader and the character, and makes the reader more aware of the author's artifice and manipulation. But that means we simply can't have a story where the POV character plans something of any importance and then carries it out (or even some of it).

A really common example is heist stories. If there's a detailed scene laying out the plan before a heist attempt, then inevitably the plan gets messed up really early, so the plan we already know is tossed out the window. But if the planning stage is skipped over or cut past, that's because the execution of the plan needs to be suspenseful, which means they can't tell us most of the plan yet.

So, information-hiding of this type is kind of a cheat or a compromise, sacrificing point-of-view consistency in order to create suspense. It's a commonly-used technique, and readers are used to it, and will usually not object. It's particularly helpful if the reader knows the information being hidden is going to be revealed to him, and fairly soon - for example, if the heist gang leader says "OK, here's the plan," and then we launch right into the actual heist scene, where the plan is carried out. In this case, it's clear to the reader that's the characters know more then he does, but it's also clear why this information was hidden, and the information is about to be shared (by showing, not telling! :) ).

In mysteries, information-hiding serves the same purpose - to keep up suspense that we wouldn't have if we knew everything the POV knows. It carries the same price - it hurts POV, it feels artificial, the reader feels as if he's being toyed with and strung along.

You'll have to judge each case individually, mostly to see how big a breach of POV it is. In general, I would avoid leaning on information-hiding if possible, but I wouldn't hesitate to use it when it's the right tool for the job.

When you do use it, you want to minimize the damage. Let your protagonists have one or two mysteries; don't have huge swaths of the story the readers constantly feel shut out of. Know what other contracts you're committed to; if you're writing a fair-play mystery, then it's OK for the detective to know things the reader doesn't, but you've still got to write fair-play and actually provide all the clues.


A different, well-known solution to the problem is to create a Watson, a sidekick-ish character who naturally isn't privy to all the details and planning, who serves as the narrator. This lets the detective detect, and know far more than the reader, without breaking the Watson's POV (because Watson knows what we do, not what the detective knows).

  • Great answer. But it wouldn't be advisable to hide vital information like that the whole thing was just a dream or something like that, right? – Yashbhatt Sep 5 '14 at 12:04
  • @Yashbhatt: That honestly depends on so much. "It was all a dream" and "For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!" are much-derided cliches. But I've seen some incredible last-minute revelations (e.g. in the first two Fitch books). – Standback Sep 5 '14 at 12:09
  • It's a balance, as I wrote. How big a breach of POV in it? How cheated will the reader feel? And how big is the payoff in suspense? Can the bad parts be somehow mitigated? And so on and so forth. – Standback Sep 5 '14 at 12:10
  • @Yashbhatt "It was all a dream" is kind of what I meant by "Murder by Death plotting" in my answer. You don't want to set it up so that there's no way the reader could have gotten the answer. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Sep 5 '14 at 13:20
2

It's not at all cheating. The narrative "camera" can't be in all places at all times or your book will be a thousand pages long and only cover an hour.

In fact, part of the joy of a mystery is that the reader doesn't know what Person A did offscreen, and has to work it out. The detective/cop/agent/etc. (whoever is solving the mystery) can't be in all places at all times with all characters, so the detective him/herself isn't going to have access to all the information.

The key is not to frustrate your reader to the point where the reader has to put the book down. You leave clues (Person A and Person B are talking; Person A realizes afterward that her brush is missing; later on Person A's DNA is found at a crime scene and she has to spend the rest of the book figuring out how she was framed, and the answer is that Person B pickpocketed her brush) which an alert reader can figure out or can be recognized on a second reading.

What you shouldn't do (unless you intend to do it as a gag) is Murder by Death plotting, where you don't ever reveal the clues which the reader (or protagonist) could use to figure out the mystery.

It's fine to hide some actions; that's what makes it a mystery.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.