Before we begin, when I say, “Good things happen in the dark,” I’m not talking about those fade-to-black sexy-time moments that occur between two consenting adults. (Though, those can be very good, make no mistake.) No, I’m talking about story, and when you (might) want to keep your readers in the dark.In discussing his android character from the film ALIENS (1986), Lance Henriksen said it’s a terrible place for an actor to be in, to have to adjust his performance to give little hints along the way of a plot secret. He was referring to Ian Holm, whose character was a forerunner to Henriksen’s own in the franchise sequel.
[Spoiler warning!] In ALIEN (1979), Holm plays Ash, an android. The tricky part – that “terrible place” to which Henriksen refers – is that the audience is not aware Ash is an android until rather late in the story. In the moment, the reveal is a surprise. Yet, on repeat viewings, with the luxury of knowing what’s to come, the audience can watch Holm’s performance and see the “secret” well in advance.
There’s an art to this, in writing as well as acting. (They are, after all, two ways to tell a story.)
Personally, I’m a fan of keeping my cards close to my vest. I believe story details should occur organically, in dialogue or description, without the reader feeling like they’re being hit over the head with a mallet.
Scott paused. “I’m not going to be here forever.”
“Why?” Ross asked with another offhanded snicker. “Where you going?”
“Truro,” Scott answered, the tone of his voice much more definite than simply conversational.
In the abrupt silence between them, they both slowed their pace, until they were standing in the sand, facing each other.
“Truro?” Ross said at last. “You mean, you’re leaving?”
Scott shrugged again, more naturally this time. “Venus’s job is there,” he said, “and the commute is brutal on her. Sometimes, she works twelve- or even fourteen-hour shifts! We had to rent a flat down there just so she’d have a place to crash when things get hairy.”
“What about the school? I thought you were going to take over for Pennington?”
Scott smiled wryly. “The only way he’s leaving that classroom is feet first. Besides, I can find a job anywhere.” He sighed. “Emma needs to be with her mum more. And we both miss Venus like crazy when she’s not at home.”
Ross blinked, then smiled, too, a bit sadly. “Well, I’ll miss you, mate. The girls, too.”
Scott chuckled, still melancholy but with a renewing trace of his usual humour. “You lads are rather like family, as well.” His stance relaxed as he gave another sigh. “But, we do what we have to do.”
The main point of the dialogue above is that, sometimes, we have to make sacrifices for the people we love; that’s the primary theme of the chapter from which the snippet is taken. But, I also put a tiny detail in there, one that doesn’t come to fruition until four chapters later.
Readers who were paying attention should recall the detail upon gentle reminder in that later chapter. Even if they don’t, I still give some brief explanation. But, it doesn’t come completely from left field…and, I don’t need to waste precious plot development time relating facts I’ve already put out there. Or – potentially worse – slowing down the drama or excitement of the moment by breaking away into exposition.
[Caveat:] Of course, different genres can approach this dilemma in different ways. Agatha Christie, for example, would dump so much information to the reader, in order to make her mysteries trickier to figure out before the end. (I’m guessing this is what happens to a real detective: they’re given lots of different facts, without easily knowing which ones are worth following. So, they have to pick and choose…or, follow them all.) This can certainly build tension and create red herrings, making for a fun – if not terribly straight or succinct – ride. But, a romance writer who wants to drop a baby-bomb on their main character may wait for a particular moment to make such a plot point known, to maximize shock or drama value, then go back and illustrate supporting details as a follow-up. This practice, too, can create opportunities for emotional growth.
So, there’s no one way to weave the little details of your story, or to let them known to your reader. But, what are your favored storytelling techniques for divulging information?