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In the story I am writing, I have a character who is working on a project and will present it to a group of judges who will mark it in a sort of examination. The project is a source of stress for the character, and also provides a sort of paradigm shift for them.

Though the story takes place across the project's creation, from conceptualisation, through creation, to presentation, I do not want to tell the reader what the project actually is until it is revealed in the presentation.

The problem is the narration is usually coming from this character's perspective and I want to show the character's thoughts and the elaborate process in which they are creating the project. They become a hermit for a time to get it done, moving furniture, skipping meals, bringing in many odd materials to their bedroom and more.

My question is: what are the effects of intentionally omitting obvious information from the reader for a bigger reveal later? What can be done to minimise any damage it could cause?

  • Related: writing.stackexchange.com/questions/22107/… – F1Krazy Mar 15 '18 at 11:10
  • What is the target age of your readers? The younger readers in my IRL group want to know everything right away. One recently said "How am I supposed to feel when I read this? Give me a hint." The older readers do not. – DPT Mar 15 '18 at 16:15
  • Well at worst you can piss off your readers. It's hard to say how everyone will react because people have different opinions on this effect. I personally don't like it and find others don't like it. But that's just my personal experience. – LateralTerminal Mar 15 '18 at 16:25
  • Related:writing.stackexchange.com/questions/17240/… – Tom Au Mar 15 '18 at 16:44
  • @DPT The book is not aimed for Young Adult, and is definitely for older audiences. – Erdrik Ironrose Mar 15 '18 at 16:46
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One solution is to keep the protagonist from even knowing the answer. Make the project a kind of an exploration and discovery so small accomplishments accumulate to larger things, that suddenly coalesce into a finished project.

The other thing to do is keep their thoughts, when working on the project, not on what it does but what it means, what the results would be. Not how to cure cancer, but the idea This will cure cancer. Focus on the implications or consequences of the project.

In fact, I would focus on both ends of the spectrum, the extremely fine details of the project, and the extremely large.

A mathematician / statistician like me isn't thinking "I'm inventing a new distribution that does XYZ for fracture prediction", that's the middle ground.

We think "I'm going to save lives and keep aircraft from falling out of the sky. [consequences,] I just have to find a way to narrow this error range a little more, maybe I can use a conditioning equation... [microscopic details]."

The trick is, the consequences of the project do not really tell the reader what the heck the project is, and the microscopic details worked on each day are "a tree" instead of "the forest", so they don't tell the reader the nature of the big idea either.

But still the reader feels like they are somehow privy to the thoughts of the inventor, it is just the original inspiration for the project occurred before the book began (like many other thoughts the protagonist has had), so the big idea is never discussed.

In fact trying to see the forest from the trees could be played as a kind of mystery, the clues being the "big consequences" and "microscopic details."

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When I am stressed out my clear thoughts are usually taking a backseat because I am focused on whatever is stressing me out. You can try to omit the stuff by simply not explicitly talking about it:

What do I need now? I need... I need... macaroni! Yes, macaroni! That's perfect! And... Yarn! Where do I have my yarn?

or to make it a bit less hectic:

I am trying to find the materials I need. Luckily I have most of it in my kitchen: a knife, butter, my trusty old microwave and a rubber band. I feel like McGuiver when I am running back to my room with all the stuff that I need for the first stage of the project. I just hope that it will all work out the way I am imagining it so that I can start with the hot glue and the insulant material by tomorrow evening...

The effect of this is that it's obvious that your reader is not supposed to know what is happening. Some people may like this, some people may not. You will never be able to please everyone.

But you should make sure that this is not too long or at least regularly interrupted by normal scenes, for examples conversations in the pub with a few friends. Reading multiple chapters of such vague descriptions like I did here would be extremely boring and your readers would anticipate something grand.

It's already enough to have a couple paragraphs of this style to have your reader anticipate something grand - a few paragraphs of weird descriptions should yield a couple pages of important plot where these things play an important role. If it's not that important that you will talk about all the weird little details you should think about whether you really want to do something like this or just skip past it with a bit of description.

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    +1, and if you're still concerned with certain groupings of materials giving it away (If I'm making mac and cheese, and I mention mac and cheese....) , you can always use random items to obfuscate the true uses. – Anoplexian - Reinstate Monica Mar 15 '18 at 14:44
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A story has to be interesting all the way through. There are many cases of authors withholding information that could be given earlier in order to create a big reveal later. But it has to be done in a way that does not make a big chunk of the story leading up to the reveal boring or frustrating.

The best tool that authors have for withholding information without making the rest of the story boring or frustrating is the manipulation of point of view. If you can tell as story from a point of view where the information in question cannot be seen, then you have successfully withheld that information from the reader.

The problem today is that so many writers are fixated on first person narrative. Rather than choosing the point of view that best suites the sort of story they want to tell, they decide on first person narrative before they decide on anything else. (This is often based on the entirely false notion that first person narrative is more intimate. The great thing about prose is that you can be as intimate or as distant as you like regardless of the narrative point of view.)

Given this fixation, we get all kinds of questions here which amount to "I have chosen to write in first person but I want to achieve some effect that is incompatible with writing in first person. What do I do."

The answer is: either don't write in first person or pick a different person.

  • Some stories play with first person where the narrator learns over time what they used to know, or some variation of this. Have you seen Memento? Now I wonder if that was written in order to play with what a first person narrator can and cannot know. – DPT Mar 15 '18 at 17:44
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    @DPT I think that is one of the uses of first person stream of consciousness, to play with issues of memory and knowledge. But then that is about the entire structure and purpose of the story. And such a story would be hurt particularly by any unnatural manipulation for the author to insert backstory. – user16226 Mar 15 '18 at 18:00
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It all depends on how frequent the project impacts/appears in your story, and how much information you withhold regarding this project.

Say you have an event that sets your story in motion, as long as you tell your reader enough information so that the story can proceed, it should be fine.

However, in your case, if you don't explain enough about the project, your readers will undoubtedly be left feeling very confused and it's easily possible that they will get bored. This could be made worse if the project is repeatedly referenced throughout the story and plays a big role in everyday life (as you've suggested).

Imagine you and your group of new friends sit down every day to chat. When you talk, they keep on referencing an inside joke which they don't share with you. The first time, you will probably ignore it. The second and third time, you will probably ask them as you want to be let in on the joke. After that, you'll just get frustrated and might stop talking to them (become disinterested with them).

This is what your story seems like. To fix this, just make sure you give enough information to the reader so that they're not left feeling confused.

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I think I understand the difficulty of having the reader experience the story of this character with him as the narrator while trying to hide from the reader something the character knows. The few examples in literature I can think of that have the audience experiencing the story from a character's point of view and lacking significant information at the same time are either because the character doesn't know that information (e.g. Harry Potter, who is the channel by which the reader is given new information about the world/story), or because the character is an unreliable narrator (e.g. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).

In the case of the unreliable narrator, there is reason to believe that the character from whose perspective the story is being told is not necessarily giving us the whole picture, either because they themselves are experiencing something different from reality (i.e. they have a mental illness), or because they have motivation to hide it from the reader.

In your case, I think the character could have motivation to hide the information from the reader, but only if a reader exists, and by that I mean perhaps the story could be told in a letter or journal sort of format. One where you could have actual statements in the story along the lines of,

I grabbed the hammer and started piecing together my project, but that's all I can say because I don't want to give it away quite yet.

That's one way you could go about justifying the hiding of information from the reader that the main, first-person character knows, although you would need some reason why the character doesn't want to reveal it.

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It definitely helps that the story is for adults, not YA.

Perhaps the answer is to promise that puzzles will be part of the story you are telling, and this project is one such puzzle.

I'd consider making three puzzles in the story, the one you have here, which may be the 'big' one, and its reveal is later in the story.

Early on, Chapter one, your first person character can say "My life has always been a puzzle." (Promise implied.)

Puzzle 1: Chapter one can have a simple resolved puzzle through its chapter arc, that the reader may or may not realize is supporting your promise that you are writing with puzzles in mind.

Puzzle 2: A second puzzle can be woven in, which resolves around mid-book.

Puzzle 3: Your project, which has clues throughout, is the third puzzle. Aim for about a quarter to half (?) of the readers figuring it out - Make it a smart puzzle - and then the reveal should be the "Oh! How did I not see that?' moment for the reader.

-> I think this could work. Execution would be key.

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I'm a little late on the scene but I'll just mention a few things that might help.

what are the effects of intentionally omitting obvious information from the reader for a bigger reveal later?

It's all about execution. If done poorly, without an explanation to justify this omission, it will feel gimmicky and contrived. Your reader won't appreciate it, at least if they're a discriminate reader above middle grade age.

What can be done to minimise any damage it could cause?

There's dozens of tools at your disposal to not only minimize the damage but to actually make the book more suspenseful and interesting because of your omission.

Using an unreliable narrator is one of the most useful and colorful literary devices available. Not only is it a built-in conflict generator to fuel the plot, but it completely justifies why this information would be withheld from the reader in the first place.

Structuring your story around an unreliable narrator can be fun, like puzzling out a mystery. You can establish their untrustworthiness upfront or gradually over the course of the narrative, eventually exposing them as a liar, delusional, unaware or distracted--whatever their motivation happens to be for omitting the information.

Consider Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl, where the two perspective characters give contradictory accounts of what happened leading up to the inciting incident (the wife's disappearance and alleged murder). The husband's perspective occurs in the present timeline of the story after the incident takes place, whereas his wife's perspective is an epistolary account of the past leading up to that event via diary entries. The reader is aware that one of these characters isn't telling the truth and the mystery and suspense gradually builds until the details of the past converge with the events of the present story timeline.

In this case, the diary is used as a framing device to reveal details about the past that happened prior to the events in the other perspective character's timeline, told through the perspective of the missing wife. As more information is gradually revealed, the reader constantly reconsiders what could have happened to her, as one potential motive after another presents itself to explain her disappearance. Did she runaway? Was she murdered? Did she kill herself? Is she crazy? Or is the husband a liar?

Using non linear story telling could allow you to reveal the process of the project's development without actually disclosing what that project is. Nesting the project details into a past time frame, for instance, wouldn't distract from the immediate story conflict. You could structure it in such a way where the reader is guessing what the project could possibly be while misdirecting them in your current timeline, or vice versa.

Misdirection and red herrings are useful tools that employ subtlety, subtext and suggestion using limited but provocative information to force the reader to make inaccurate but plausible deductions. How you structure your story, using these devices, will determine how plausible and satisfying your final reveal/twist will be to the reader.

So it all depends on execution.

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