I have planned out my (German language) novel and its 16 chapters in considerable detail (for my standards). But as for the sequence of presenting those of the chapters that are contemporaneous, I sometimes feel uncertain.

One of my subplots revolves around a group of people who explore caves and are overwhelmed by traps therein.

My original plan was to describe the observations of the explorers (in chapter 4), dropping sparse clues, from which the reader might figure out the traps (better than the protagonists).

Then (in chapter 5) I planned to use an engineer in training to clearly reveal the function of these traps.

But now that I have spoken to a couple of my friends about my novel, I got the impression that a couple of them greatly enjoy being far ahead of the protagonist information-wise. So I am considering to place the engineer chapter ahead of the explorer chapter, thereby reversing their respective order.


Should the reader know the solution of the protagonist‘s problems ahead of time? Since there will not be a single answer, what are the pros and cons of each option, or the questions that you ask yourselves, in order to decide?

Do you have examples of novels that you love using one approach or the other?

It might be relevant that my novel (allthough hard to categorise) has elements of historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction.

3 Answers 3


I would say both are valid approaches and it could simply be down to stylistic choice. I have read several stories that reveal (for example) that the main character of the chapter is going to die soon and yet and it not be a "spoiler".

If you have the engineer explain the traps first, you have to consider - when you get to the chapter with the characters encountering the traps: What makes this interesting to the reader? There's a risk it might be a bit boring to read about the characters trying to figure out what the reader already knows, so you will have to add something to make this interesting.

e.g. to borrow hszmv's bomb example - the suspense might not be "which is the correct wire?", so much as "will they correctly choose the red wire?" or "how will Alvin convince Simon that the red wire is correct?".

I can see why your test readers might prefer it this way around though. If the drama is in the characters getting past the traps, by the time you get to reading about the engineer, you might no longer care about the traps, or even forgotten some of them if there were too many. In either case how to get through them might be pretty uninteresting. For this way around, you have to establish why knowing the correct solution is important to the reader.


There is something in fiction that TVTropes calls "The Unspoken Plan Guarantee". The basic idea is that the more the audience knows about your plan, the more likely it is to fail. After all, this creates drama and suspense. If you have a bomb and a guy cuts the wire and stops the countdown... it's more suspenseful if the final number on the clock is 00:01 than if it reads out 15:00. Why? because cutting the red wire, not the blue is easy knowledge (for the bomb tech) but beating the bad guy keeping the tech from the bomb for 15 minutes is more exciting (though just once, I want to see an action movie parody where the bomb is disarmed with 10+ minutes left on the clock and a sudden cut to an office party where the bomb tech and Da Chief eating cake as Da Chief says "Congratulations on setting the record for quickest bomb disarming in company history. 12:53 from a 15:00 start! Let that be a lesson to you slackers who wait to the last second to disarm the bomb!").

By failure, I do not mean the heroes lose and the bad guy wins... but rather the hero has to improvise to changing conditions in a "no plan survives first contact with the enemy" situation. This is such a staple to the heist film genre, that almost all heist films can be boiled down to a basic summation. Act 1: Assemble the team. Act II: Prep for the plan. Act III: Unexpected elements throwing off the team when they do it for real, but pull it off anyway.

In this set up, the suspense comes from the fact that things aren't going to according to plan and the heroes have to adapt to changing conditions on the one time they have to get it right. In real life, some organizations have training from hell, so that the players are ready for everything. The Astronaut program is infamous for "killing" the potential astronauts many times over, both in mission specific and generic ways. So that when launch day comes, they've been through every way they could die so they can handle the emergency. Hell, in the after action, NASA admitted that the scenario that lead to Apollo XIII disaster would have been rejected for Astronaut Training scenarios because it was deemed too unlikely to survive at all... the fact that it was survived allowed "no win" scenarios to be considered for future training.


Giving out clues ahead of the protagonists gives away interest and thrill as a con, but it allows space to elaborate on the point of view of the characters involved, to point out their level of awareness or e,g why they thought of a trap as something else.

Thrill is always in the curiosity but meaning isn't. If you are interested in doing both, then you can give out some clues and preserve the rest, where you can make two analysis in your work and allow the reader to have the benefit but not all of it. Can you describe this work more ?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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