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In my three book, fantasy series, I have a character who is a traitor to the group of protagonists.

The reader knows from the beginner that there is a spy somewhere because the anagonists discuss the fact that they have a spy, but it's very nebulous to begin with, though I am careful to leave a couple of hints here and there about who it might be so that it's not a huge surprise when the reveal is made.

At the end of Book 1 there's a turning point where the spy does something so overt that the protagonists will definitely know that someone is a traior (they will find out at the beginning of book 2) but they will not know who that traitor is until the end of Book 2. It's actually a turning point for the spy character where they decide to be a full on traitor and not just a passive spy who occassionally gives the antagonists tips but does little more.

The overt action involves the traitor physically meeting with the antagonist for the reader to observe. I could write this in such a way as to NOT reveal the traitor's identity (only confirm that it is someone the reader knows and possibly cares about) or I could write it in a way that reveals the traitor's identity to the reader so that they know before the protagonists discover it.

I'm struggling to determine which is better. I know this is subjective but I'd still like advice or an opinion that is outside of my own head!

On the one hand, I think it would be nice to only reveal that the traitor is part of the protagonists' core circle at the end of book one and leave the reader trying to figure out who it is, while leaving even more overt clues / misdirects along the way.

On the other hand, I don't want to insult the reader with a "tease" at the end of book 1 by writing a scene that's designed to keep the traitor's identity a secret even though the antagonist clearly knows who the person is. There is also some merit to giving the reader the identity and getting them excited about figuring out how the traitor will slip up and reveal himself to the protagonists.

At the end of the day, neither way I write this will affect much of how I write the traitor's plot or character-arc, it's just with one choice, the reader knows who it is quite a while before the characters.

I keep going back and forth, and it's driving me nuts.

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I would say that it depends on the climax of Book 1. I have done the same, finished a story with a tease to the next story, but I felt comfortable doing that because the first story finished with a satisfying BANG, and the tease was just an afterthought, and really the beginning of the sequel. Basically, after the final battle is done and won, in the aftermath, there is somebody in the book that my hero has admired and been wanting to meet for most of her life. And in "the new world" without the villain, she finally has the time to do that. That is how it ends -- She goes to meet him, and the final scene is that she arrives at his house. The End.

If I cut that out, my story would still have held together, my hero could have celebrated with her team, blah blah blah.

So I'd say if you have a satisfying BANG at the end of BOOK 1, then go ahead and tease the mystery for Book 2: Don't reveal the traitor, but provide an obviously important new clue to who the traitor is, and leave on a cliffhanger.

But if failing to reveal the traitor at the end of Book 1 means you don't really have a satisfying conclusion to Book 1, then you need to reveal the traitor; that is the payoff to Book 1.

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    Thanks, that's a good way to look at it, and I have made sure to have that satisfying end for Book 1, and now that I'm looking at it from that perspective, I can definitely make it more of a short tease as opposed to a full on scene, so I don't drag out the whole "I'm not telling you who this is" part of it.
    – Olandir
    Jan 13 at 18:37
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    This is excellent advice. One book should always contain its own plot. Over-arching plots that span multiple books are a plus, not the core.
    – NofP
    Jan 13 at 19:37
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Consider the third option: Reveal the traitor... but do it by giving a red herring reveal. Consider this: Alice, our protagonist, tells the team, which includes good friends Bob and Charlie the plan for the climax. Prior to the climax of book one have the traitor meet with the villain (though his identity is concealed... perhaps it's a unique costume or a cloak concealing his face) and is given something unique that marks him as the traitor to the reader when it reappears (a unique ornate dagger that will kill the hero or a tattoo that will let other minions of the villain identify each other). The book's climax concludes and the heroes return to their base to celebrate. Eventually the party dwindles and it's down to Alice and Bob who say their good nights.

Bob goes to his room and goes to bed, but not before showing the readers he has the Mark of the Traitor (The dagger is resting among his weapons... or he looks at the tattoo before falling asleep.). The book ends there.

In Book Two the traitor becomes active and Alice starts the hunt among her allies. Bob has several other interactions that, with the reader's knowledge, lead to him looking more and more like the traitor. Charlie finds the Mark the reader saw Bob with (he finds the golden dagger in Bob's room... or Charlie exposes the tattoo).

But it turns out that Bob has a good reason for possessing these items (he found the dagger after leaving the party... dropped by the real spy... or he was apart of the Big Bad's forces and got the tattoo while serving him... but deserted after he was ordered to slaughter a village of women and children and couldn't do it. Better yet, Bob was originally a defector who was sent to kill Alice... but he legit switched sides and now is loyal to her). But wait... there's more... something about the nature of the attacks also proves that Bob could not have done it... maybe an alibi... especially one that he wouldn't admit to unless it was to save his life... emerges to show conclusively that Bob is telling the truth and he wasn't a spy.

But if he's not a spy, than how did Charlie know where the damning evidence of Bob's supposed guilt would be unless.

IT WAS AGATHA ALL ALO- Record Scratch

Sorry... stupid little ditty...

It was Charlie all along.

This requires some level of meticulous planning as your stretching the plot over two books and make sure that all of Bob's actions, while look damning never actually are... mean while all Charlie's actions, while innocent, are damning under the same light. Hell, Charlie may have hidden the dagger in Bob's room because he's never been associated with the Big Bad in an allied way. But since Bob has, it would hide his own actions on someone who would look guilty just by the circumstantial evidence.

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  • I'm kind of already doing that in a smaller way. I don't directly point to a red hearing, but I give clues and distinctive elements that could point to multiple people. But I do get what you're saying. It's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure it will work for my particular plot, but I definitely appreciate having another perspective. So thank you for that.
    – Olandir
    Jan 14 at 6:09
  • It could also be that the person who informs the hero that their is a spy is in fact a spy. It would deflect suspicion away from him as no spy would tell you they are a spy.
    – hszmv
    Jan 14 at 13:54

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