Good things happen in the dark

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.

Lance Henriksen

Lance Henriksen

Ian Holm

Sir Ian Holm

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.

Ace playing cards

Showing your hand too early?

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?

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6 thoughts on “Good things happen in the dark

  1. Hmm, I’m not really sure how to answer! I like to think I provide some hints that gradually lead to “the big reveal.” But I wonder if my test readers would agree with that? I may end up “telling” more than I should….

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    • That’s my issue, too, JM: I get a bit paranoid thinking I’m not “showing” enough. Although, I’ve also been told that just the fact you’re aware of the issue is half the battle avoided, so that’s some consolation. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. During one of my rewrites I was going through this obsessive phase of leaving a trail of clues throughout the novel rather than doing a whole dump of details. I figured on subsequent readings these clues would be more obvious and the reader would see the layers I was trying to fold into the story. I ended up getting rid of part of the storyline in a later draft, so there went all those clues. Sigh.

    I wholeheartedly agree that dropping in vague details that will come to fruition later is fun for author and reader both. Info dump is generally not a good tactic unless, like you say, it’s strategically done to distract or deter the reader.

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    • Ouch, Kate! It’s sad to see so much work get scrapped…but, hopefully, it was a learning experience. If the plot was dropped, maybe you could incorporate it into a different story, to come later? I know I’d try to find a way to make all that work see fruition. 🙂

      There are a few times I’ve done an info-dump, just to get the details out the way. I need to have a beta reader take a close look at those paragraphs. (I try to keep them to only a paragraph.) I feel like they’re necessary, but a more discerning editor might be able to kick me in the behind and say, “You don’t need this!”

      Thanks for stopping by.

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  3. Personally, I love red herrings. One here, one there, and plenty of misdirection to spare. But if used too much, then the plot smells like dead fish…not good.

    As for revealing information, I do try to keep such things as realistic as possible, as well as writing out said revelation. Those moments make for some of the best drama!

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    • I like that: “if used too much, the plot smells like dead fish.” 😀

      Red herrings are good for hooks, I suppose; I hadn’t considered that when I wrote the post.

      I like a mix of data reveal. Sometimes, I just have to dump, to get to the heart of the story. But, I do try to mix it up.

      Thanks for commenting!

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