Note: I'm primarily asking this question because while Surtsey, the original asker of the question didn't actually ask a thing (and instead copy-pasted an excerpt of a novel) I believe it's a worthwhile question to ask. With that in mind, let's begin.

Sometimes, tension, drama, or a twist can only be preserved by withholding certain information from the reader. This can be done via a variety of means, such as using a limited POV (where the drama/tension/twisted is experienced by both a character and the reader, as they both know as little as each other) or setting up a red herring, a form of misdirection. There are other kinds of misdirection, but too much of it, and a twist can be considered an 'Ass Pull', that is, pulled from a writer's arse.

A good example of this would be in M Night Shamaylan's Devil, in which several sinners are trapped in an elevator, dying one by one. It's obvious that it's the Devil doing this, but for an extra 'twist', it's revealed a random pickpocketing old lady previously killed was, in fact, the devil, despite there being no previous indication of this (or indeed, there being a need for any of those people to be the Devil considering he's a supernatural entity).

So, with this in mind, where is the line drawn between 'cheating' and 'fair play' with regards to misdirection? I personally have a few takes on the issue:

  • Outright lying to the reader is a no-no. A POV character can come to an erroneous conclusion, but it must be honest as far as the POV character knows.
  • Any information a POV character knows should not be arbitrarily hidden just to preserve tension. If the plot twist is just magically known all along by every in-universe, but not the reader, it reads as odd.
  • Red herrings are legitimate, but should not be egregious. If every piece of evidence points to the red herring and none to the truth, even upon a re-reading, it's a poorly-constructed drama/mystery.

What do you lot think? Is there an objective line, and if so, where is it drawn?

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    Nope. No objective line. Novels are not life. You tell a good story. It varies by genre. By age. Hell, fairy tales are complete lies and misdirection to the most innocent members of society. How many kids are still waiting for their letters from Hogwarts? my daughter cried when hers didn't come. No rules, except tell a good story. – DPT Sep 14 at 15:24
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    @DPT I'm not talking about stories having 'misdirected' morals or indeed being fictional at all like you seem to be getting at, I'm talking about how it affects good storytelling. Whether or not a twist feels 'earned', etc. – Matthew Dave Sep 14 at 15:28
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    Meh. I don't think there's an objective line. I'm working through a craft book now replete with examples of the most ludicrous scenarios in successful fiction--and why they work. I think you can go as far as you want, with misdirection or whatever, if the whole of the story hangs together. I think looking for a boundary is the wrong approach. So, I think 'no.' – DPT Sep 14 at 16:04
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    @DPT Fair. Want to write an answer with some of those examples? I'm curious to see what they are. – Matthew Dave Sep 14 at 16:06
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    LOLS, no, I don't think so. I miss Mark. – DPT Sep 14 at 16:08
up vote 14 down vote accepted

I think the line is subjective, and relates to whether the typical reader will feel like the narrator (that is not the author) cheated or tried to trick them.

Of course the author tried to trick them, that isn't the point. It is if the narrator did. So if you are writing 3rd person omniscient, the narrator knows everything, and pretty much all deception is off limits. Perhaps the narrator can give a cryptic clue, like "Mary did not know how wrong she was," but then the reader knows Mary's perception is wrong, the omniscient narrator is not lying by omission and letting the reader believe Mary's logic was sound.

If you are writing 1st person, or 3rdP Limited, then the narrator only knows what the POV character knows, so deceptions have wide range. But then, the stumbling block becomes plausibility, the MC(s) that are deceived must have plausible reasons for being deceived. It can't just sound good and understandable at the point of deception, it must still sound good and understandable after the reveal. It can't seem like "this character would never fall for that." If the reader goes back and reads the scene where the MC was deceived, knowing the MC is being deceived and how, the reader must still finish saying "Okay yeah, that could happen, and this sounds like the MC."

My favorite example of this is "The Sixth Sense." I watched it as soon as it came out, and did not expect the twist. But I also watched it again, immediately, and ... sure enough, every clue was there throughout the film, and I just missed it. There isn't a single instance where MNS cheats us, it is just done so well that we miss the clues that were in plain sight.

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    Jim Butcher pulls a reveal a few times in his Dresden Files stories, where his first-person narrator (usually Harry Dresden) has done something that he didn't mention at the time, making the situation radically different. It worked for me, and I didn't see complaints about it. – David Thornley Sep 14 at 20:03
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    @DavidThornley Not all readers are alike; if you don't mind that kind of thing, then fine. To me, and as a general rule, it smacks of deus ex machina; the character gets into trouble and then oh so conveniently finds the gun he hid the day before without telling us. That is why it is discouraged; particularly for newer writers. If Butcher gets away with it and his fans don't mind a deus ex machina now and then, hooray for Butcher. I still don't recommend it. – Amadeus Sep 14 at 20:58
  • I disagree with narrator deception being a no-go. Gur Hfhny Fhfcrpgf is just one instance where a deceptive narrator is valid. – Acccumulation Sep 14 at 21:21
  • It's not a deus ex machina if the protagonist did it. – Beanluc Sep 14 at 22:24
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    @Amadeus I think that part of it is to what degree the narrator comes across as a character. If the narrator exists inside the story universe, then them lying is more acceptable than if they appear to exist out of universe. – Acccumulation Sep 14 at 22:53

All right, so there's some clarity coming out of the discussion with Ash, I think.

Matthew--I'd say that there are definitely rules for reveals. Reveals are the endpoints of misdirects. Reveals are the payoffs to the readers. They are the 'honoring of the contract.'

So. Requirement (boundary): You need to set the contract up front. (1)

How to set the contract?

Let's create an example on the fly. Let's say in a fantasy work that the ruling queen of the land is actually a space alien with no claim to the throne at all. We will reveal this somewhere in the second half of the book. Not the first chapter (not if it's intended as a reveal.) So, timing is another reasonable boundary. (2)

No, the first chapter or three will instead set the readers to see the queen as a legitimate ruler. The more strongly this is implied (use all three of narrative, action, and dialogue to reinforce the idea), the more the reader takes it at face value that the queen's legitimacy does not need to be questioned.

So there's another guideline. It is fair (not cheating) to use narrative, dialog, and action to misdirect. (3)

But. Hints should be dropped into the story, and some of these should be early as part of the contract. Some indication that aliens exist, some consequence of the queen being illegitimate. Anything about the final reveal that does not follow convention should be set up in some manner before the reveal. That's another rule. (4) Depending on the age range of the readers and how far from convention the story strays, more or less should be added. One could, in this hypothetical story, have legends of space aliens once ruling the kingdom, long ago. That would be too on-the-nose for some stories, but effective for others, I think, depending on how it is handled and the readership and etc.

I can't think of anything else offhand. But breaking any of those rules could be grounds to call foul. If the reader doesn't know this fantasy work has space aliens in it, and this is otherwise a typical sword-and-sorcery fantasy, then 'revealing' that the queen is a space alien with no claim to the throne breaks a rule.

Now, why is all of the above wrong?

Because it depends on genre. You can write satire or comedy and get away with breaking rules. As the Stranger in a Strange Land said, humor is a wrongness. If something is done well, even if it's done wrong, we'll enjoy it. If it's wrong in the right way, we will laugh.

Consider the vampire bunny in Python's Quest for the Holy Grail. That fearsome beast came out of the blue, there was nothing in the preceding story that hinted carnivorous bunnies with sharp nasty teeth awaited us. BUT, everything in the story hinted that the entire story would break all the rules.

So, my answer to your question is it depends on the exact story, and that story needs to exist in a rough form for a decision to be reached. Beta readers are valuable here. They'll spot the issues.

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    Nasty big pointy teeth. :) – Galastel Sep 14 at 19:25
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    It's not just the story, it's the whole comedy troupe that doesn't follow any rules at all. – Kevin Sep 15 at 5:05

The problem I always have with this question, and any other question that asks, directly or indirectly, about our readers' knowledge is that no two people ever come at a story from exactly the same place. What I see as a pointless attempt to disguise information or build tension for the "big reveal" many another person sees as clever bit of foreshadowing. They don't instantly recognise the clues for what they are saying and I do, and the same is true in reverse in many other cases; other people see the forest while I'm still looking at the trees even after the answer has been revealed.

In short you can't actually write a story that hides/reveals everything you want hidden, or revealed, to the audience. Not in key parts nor in the narrative as a whole. Give readers the information you want them to have and let the chips fall where they may.

  • I'm specifically talking about what information to reveal or not, not what information one magically forces the reader to process somehow. I'm asking which info is revealed or not; that is entirely under the control of the writer. – Matthew Dave Sep 14 at 16:11
  • And I'm telling you, categorically, that it's not under the control of the writer how much information is actually revealed to the reader by what the writer tells them. – Ash Sep 14 at 16:21
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    This kind of invalidates mystery writing as a craft. There's a reason mystery writers are artists of reveals; writers can and do influence what information is available to the reader and the emotional experience of when/how something is revealed/foreshadowed. Yes, each reader's experience is subjective, but if you use this argument, it can be reapplied to literally any debate on literary technique and say 'why bother with debating this, when what a reader actually experiences from this story is on them, not the writer'. – Matthew Dave Sep 14 at 16:26
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    @MatthewDave Why are you writing for anyone other than yourself? The first and last advise of all the widely published writers I've ever spoken to is the same on this topic; write what you want to write, the way you want to write it, or don't bother at all. To that end the right information to give out is whatever the author thinks they should be saying because they can't control the reader. – Ash Sep 14 at 16:35
  • @MatthewDave Mysteries and detective novels bore me rigid, there is no "reveal" there's only "here's what those pieces meant for those of you who didn't keep up" – Ash Sep 14 at 16:35

Acceptable to whom?

I just read a top bestseller in which the viewpoint character sees something unsettling every few chapters, but always the narrator withholds that information from the reader for a page or two to increase suspense.

Personally, I find this extremely annoying, but nevertheless this is a celebrated author and the book at the top of the bestseller list.

So quite apparently, while I find it unacceptable, it was acceptable to both the agent, editor, and other industry professionals who worked with the author on the book as well as the majority of the audience who keep buying this author's books.


Many books feature similar irritating tricks, and yet they sell.

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