novel-writing and controlling information

A random subject, I must admit, but this has been on my mind recently.

Part of my book involves… we’ll call it a mystery. Unclear motives, conspiracy, a bigger picture than the protagonist sees. I’m exactly three chapters from ending the book according to my recent chapter plans, and as more and more climax-heightening information comes through, I have to wonder… is the big reveal, aha-moment too obvious? The characters have every scrap of information they’d need now to put things together. A stressful chapter, a distracting goal, and a wrong take on one of the events ought to keep the characters busy… what about the reader?

This is probably the most agonizing part of writing fantasy. Fantasy is a setting-genre. It has a great deal in common with sci-fi, westerns, and even historical fiction for that reason. And yet the genre constantly overlaps with the event-genres… action, adventure, romance, mystery, thriller (suggest that fantasy is an event-genre by the necessity of a ‘quest’, and I will vaporize you with my scary teacher-stare). So in able to be able to fully command the genre, one must be at least adapt at the subtleties of romance and mystery, the chill of a suspense novel and the tension of a well-crafted fight, no matter the era of weapon.

Back to my original question: how do you know when you’ve made the reveal too transparent? Like spotting a scratch on a piece of furniture– when you know where to look, it jumps out at you. I have some ideas– only a survey of test-readers can be accurate, but there are a few tricks that I’ve noted.

One upon a time, I was an admirer of the Harry Potter series. (Hey, at least it’s not ‘Twilight’). One thing that I admired about Rowling’s work was how thoroughly she would foreshadow her endings. By the fourth book, I caught on to her style enough to see them coming ahead of time, but the first three books left me hitting myself, declaring “Stupid! Stupid!” at the end of each one. Rowling also has a lot of characters, each involved with their own activities, and lots of quirky detail, to hide what’s important with what’s not. So what if the pet rat has a missing toe? It’s an old, pathetic rat that’s had one too many encounters with a garden gnome or something, nestled right in a description of how haggard it looks. And there was that vacation it was hauled off to in Egypt over the summer. It might have caught something. Plenty of reasons not to think it has anything to do with plot.

Use of detail, amid lots of other detail. Logical rationalization, yet a point unique enough to stand out. Foreshadowing each element as its own separate island, as if they’re not connected. Mistaken assumptions that the reader is lead to agree with can be startling to overturn.

But then, my next example uses something entirely different. Gosford Park, a murder mystery film… which was more about the people and less about the murder.

I will warn you, I really, really loved this movie. Watch it five times, and you might have picked out all the subtle sub-plots. Everyone is guilty of something… some more than others. There’s bickering behind closed doors, affairs, blackmail… in fact, all the sub-plots can be so interesting that they take away focus of the murder entirely. The reveal isn’t dramatic. On the contrary, it’s quiet, and not exactly a ‘pursuit of justice’.

So… is detail the secret? I haven’t made a habit of reading mystery for some time– I think I need to go back to it. Does anyone have any great references that they’d like to point to?

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6 thoughts on “novel-writing and controlling information

  1. Going at it a bit backwards, the only process I’m not a fan of is when there’s one character who knows everything (actually, I guess it could be a group of characters, too) and slowly lets details slip over the course of the novel. Sometimes this can be worked pretty well into the plot, but it still feels like cheating to me.

  2. Mystery isn’t my most frequent read, either. In the past 5 years or so there’s been a Mary Higgins Clark and the quirky Lilian Jackson Braun – neither relevent to fantasy realms. But there’s one – a medical chiller by Dr. Paul Boor – that could give fodder to both fantasy and sci-fi authors. The Blood Notes of Peter Mallow takes place in a level 4 bio lab on Galveston Island where Dr. Boor actually works. The top security facility deals with the most deadly and virulent viruses, yet the story does not take the obvious path. I found the possibilities and suspense very stimulating to my own work.

  3. I can certainly suggest how not to do it. I love/d Sherlock Holmes. However, I think that Sir Arthur had a tendency to drop the endings on the reader. Suddenly facts and facets of the investigation that the reader was unaware of would drop out of the sky and land on the reader, and the case would be solved. I always felt that was unsatisfying. I wanted to be involved in the mystery.

    I think your point about JK Rowlings is well made. Her descriptions in her early books about the mundane (if you can say that?) aspects of Harry’s life was a great place to hide the details.

    I also agree with your point about having the aha hit the reader out of the blue. I always find it fulfilling to be there with the characters at the moment.

    Good Luck with your work!

  4. I am finding the same difficulty with the last three chapters of my second novel. Mine is crime (the first was published in the UK in 2007). Second one took less time but more complex thought went into it.

    A point about reveals and what can change how something ends, was made to me by screenwriting guru, Pilar Allessandro (www.onthepage.tv). Talking about the Sixth Sense the film. In effect, if the boy hand’t said the words “I see dead people,” the ending might have been the surprise it was meant to be. In other words, tiny details can make a huge difference.

    Good luck with the book!

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