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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Progressive Revelation In The Novel

Though times have been very tight financially, I did buy myself one Christmas present. A new book. It’s James Scott Bell’s The Art of War For Writers. I’m a little over halfway through and finding it a handy source of concise inspiration (though I’m sadly disappointed at the many formatting and editing errors that slipped through to printing. I expect more of Writers Digest Books).

Chapter 45 is titled “Progressive Revelation Keeps Readers Turning Pages.” This particular subject is a very timely one. Both I and some writer friends have been struggling with this issue in our stories. JSB’s chapter on this subject is very brief – it is not intended to be a full study. But he reminds writers to reveal the plot incrementally, saving the final revelations until well into the book.

That’s a helpful overview, but it’s harder to know how to reveal bits of plot then this summary suggests. What I find, both in my writing and in some of the writing of friends whose works in progress I am reading – is knowing when to play it close to the vest, and when to feed out a little rope so the reader can dig further into the story.

I notice at least in these cases, it’s usually difficulty in knowing when to reveal the nature of one character’s relationship to the other, or when to reveal a specific event in a character’s past that has direct bearing on the character’s present. The problem comes in that I, the writer, might feel that little tidbit should be best left a mystery for a while. But perhaps the critiquer thinks that little tidbit of info is no big deal and should be revealed right away. How do you know what’s right?

In fact, someone’s recent feedback was “you’re worrying too much about holding things till the end of the story.” Indeed, if a writer does withhold too much information, if you don’t get any new revelations about a major character over the course of several chapters, you grow impatient and ready to put the book aside. You’re reading it thinking “C’mon, throw me a bone here!” You don’t want to lose the reader’s interest.

But for the writer, the one juggling all those little plot tidbits in the air like a hundred knives—it’s never quite that easy to figure out when and where to make revelations. Obviously a good critique group can help with that.

But I’d be curious to hear from other writers out there. What helps you determine the appropriate places to progressively feed plot points to keep the reader turning pages? Is it simply time and experience? Or are there guidelines you go by?

1 comment:

Patti Shene said...

I loved this post, Brenda. This is definitely one of the issues I struggle with as I work on my novel. At this point, as an unpublished novelist, I'd say I'm still in the trial and error stage!