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?

by implication (the use of subtlety in prose)

The first post of a series, studying the writing techniques that I’m lacking.

Someday I’ll write about the similarities between the different forms of art. This is not that day, but I’d like to point out something. The premise of animation is that when a person is shown similar drawings quickly in sequence, their mind will connect the events and perceive movement. One could write a trip in the car from one place to another, and follow it by having the character get out of their vehicle, go to the door, let him/herself in, have a snack, watch the tv. Or you could cut from the car to the tv, and discover that by implication nothing is lost.

Possibly the best writer I know of to use subtlety is Patrick O’Brian, author of ‘Master and Commander’ and its sequels (also known as the Aubrey-Maturin novels). This is also one of the reasons I highly encourage people to read other genres– O’Brian wrote in historical fiction, and is one of the masters I greatly admire. His books are written in a very old-fashioned style that makes for heavy reading, but they’re rich in description, believability, characterization, world-building, and subtlety.

I first noticed this subtlety on entering and exiting doors. A character within a room will be speaking. Instead of narrating that they were interrupted by a knock on the door, the character will give permission to enter mid-paragraph, and finish his thought. By the end of the (almost poetic) speech, someone new will be in the room, ready to change the subject or inform the POV characters of something. In the same vein, the characters once were having a discussion while preparing to practice (one plays a violin, the other a cello), and in the middle of the cello player’s speech he says something along the lines of, ‘when you have finished with my rosin- my rosin, I say-‘ and I can just picture the other holding the rosin between his thick, square fingers, running it along his tightened bow and nodding to his prickly friend. Or there’s a dinner where a character will announce, ‘the wine stands before you’ to a dining companion, and the next thing you know, he’s refilling his own glass.

Of course, O’Brian has his own drawbacks. Sometimes it’s daunting to start his books, because in order to fully enjoy them, one needs a dictionary on one side and an atlas on the other. Some things he explains about the ships by informing the doctor, who can’t retain anything about sailing, and some things just aren’t mentioned. ‘Firing grape’, for instance, by which it is assumed that the reader knows about grape shot, or they are intellectual enough to go look it up. The target audience consists of educated, bright people, and he doesn’t lower standards.

This is coupled with a strong recommendation. Go read the Aubrey-Maturin series.

If O’Brian is the master of subtlety in logistics and world-building, I think that my next favorite is the infamous George R. R. Martin, not in setting or action, but in his characterization. Martin’s characters are incredible in their diversity and their depth, and I think that his secret is the depth in which he develops them, then proceeds to reveal only pieces relevant to the story at the time. We can see that there’s more that he’s not telling us, we can tell through the multiple narratives that things don’t quite line up with what we know, and the difference is intriguing.

Any other tricks that I’ve missed? Authors strong in this trait that I should read?