Writers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for authors, editors, reviewers, professional writers, and aspiring writers. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

How do you write a story where the point-of-view character knows something, but you want to keep it a secret from the reader until later in the story? How do you effectively suppress a vital detail for effect later, on without adversely impacting the story?

For example, take a plot following two traveling brothers on a journey to rescue a kidnapped prince. But I think it would be cool to keep secret the fact that the prince is the travellers' brother. Of course, this would restrict the manner in which the characters interact, especially since one of the traveling brothers is the MC.

I know this is something that has the potential to aggravate readers, but I've seen stories where the POV character knows important things that the reader doesn't. I understand, for example, that Gregory McDonald's Confess, Fletch is in close third person POV, but for long stretches of the novel it doesn't let on whether the protagonist has committed the murder he's being accused of. Clearly it can be done; I want to know how to do it well.

This is a spin-off question based on the original form of this question.

share|improve this question
    
This sort of happened in the light novel Death Note: Another Note, a prequel to the Death Note anime/manga. The narrator, Mello, a character in Death Note, knew what was going to happen yet narrated the events from the POV of thea protagonist Naomi Misora without revealing the twist prematurely. – BCLC Mar 17 at 12:35
    
There's a particular Agatha Christie novel you could study (as well as studying the criticism of it). To avoid a fairly massive spoiler, I'll just say that those who wish to know should be able to find it by searching for "poirot narrator is murderer". – Steve Jessop Mar 17 at 13:14
    
I believe @Randomations should be mentioned since this question is linked to theirs. They might find it useful. – Thomas Myron Mar 17 at 20:48
    
Have you read Jules Verne's, Michael Strogoff? I won't spoil it for you. Wikipedia will. – Ethan Bolker Mar 17 at 23:34
    
Thanks for the suggestion Steve; good point Tommy; @EthanBolker I haven't, thanks for the suggestion! That's a perfect way to spoil it without spoiling it. – Kai Maxfield Mar 18 at 2:53

If the character knows the vital detail, and if the vital detail matters to the character, and you want us readers to be deeply inside the character's head, you have to give the detail.

Otherwise, when you reveal the detail, we suddenly discover that we were never really deeply in the character's head after all. If we were, then we too would have known the thing that they knew and that mattered so much to them.

That kind of sudden discovery is enormously jarring, and not in a good way. It throws us right out of the character, and perhaps right out of the story.

If you don't want us to feel cheated, you have three options:

  1. Keep the viewpoint characters from knowing the detail.
  2. Keep the detail from mattering in even the slightest way to any character while we're in their viewpoint.
  3. Keep us out of the character's viewpoint altogether.
share|improve this answer
    
Agreed +1. Agatha Christie has a devoted fan base. The fact she tried it successfully in one book doesn't make it a good idea. – Stu W Mar 18 at 15:03

I think it is possible to pull this kind of thing off. In this particular instance the intriguing idea of keeping their relationship secret for a while would obviously change what details, memories, etc. you can delve into during inactive periods, but if done right this could lend a strong hand to grabbing the reader's interest sometime in the middle or end of the plot, as well as possibly adding an element of mystery in the meantime.

As far as how dialogue and thoughts go, I think that will come fairly naturally; you might relax a bit on the title of Prince once the reader is familiar with his position. If you think about yourself in this position (even were he unrelated to you), would you always think of relieving "The Prince"? Wouldn't it be, "Prince Henry" to the supporting cast, and "Henry" between the brothers? (If they are risking their lives trying to help Prince Henry Walter, they likely know which Henry is being referred to.) The one hard thing might be if they shared a common last name. (Perhaps this could be skirted by the travellers using falsified names to promote their safety on the journey.)

If they shared a common childhood, fond memories could easily be like those of good childhood friends so commonly depicted in novels. You don't ever talk to your siblings about "your brother John", they all know who you're talking about when you say "John", and you always think of him simply as "John" (supposing, of course, that you have a brother named John). Having these two blokes be of high enough position to have at least interacted somewhat with him shouldn't incite any suspicion.

If they've never met, perhaps they are experiencing the anticipation of wondering what he will be like. They believe that they hold a key that will be vital to his release, and who would question their intention? If they released the prince, who knows how lavish the rewards could be? But what if they don't succeed? What if he is ungrateful for his release? What if this? What if that? What ifs may just keep them up some nights and seemingly nearly deter them from their purpose.

Their relation could be withheld from the knowledge of acquaintances without suspicion for a while, perhaps indefinitely. But perhaps someone essential to their goal (and maybe someone they don't entirely trust) demands to know exactly why he is of such interest to them, and what they have/know that others don't. During a breathless moment of anxious indecision, one of the brothers states desperately, "He is our Brother!" And if you're really cruel, knowing that this information will intrigue the reader, the chapter will end and the scene will change to the captors. Thus, the reader will go on through another chapter before turning the lights off for the night and still be in suspense through the next day. Or, maybe they don't yet know that they are related...

share|improve this answer
1  
This makes a lot of sense. If there's people going around kidnapping princes, you probably don't want to go advertising yourself as a prince, now do you? – corsiKa Mar 17 at 14:29
    
@corsiKa I'd say that's a great way to think about it! – Kai Maxfield Mar 17 at 14:41
1  
...and maybe you will leave it so that the reader is not sure if he's really their brother, or if that's just the lie they've concocted to appear convincing. – Kit Z. Fox Mar 17 at 21:24

I like Kai's answer, one thing to add though is that you should make sure that you leave teasers throughout the book. Flashbacks to the two of them playing together or other clues, this is the main key to having a twist like this not feel like a cheat. When you can look back and see all the things you missed and go "of course, that's why".

Think of the movie sixth sense for an example of this being done well. All the scenes played fine when you don't know the twist. But they work equally well once you do know it, and they have added meaning at the same time.

By doing this it doesn't feel like a cheat when you do unveil the twist, since there were subtle clues there all along. The trick is to get the clues to the right level of subtlety where most people can see them looking back but don't work it out ahead of time.

share|improve this answer

This can be done in a number of ways, but it may affect the plot to your story depending on which you choose.

1. They don't know it's their brother

This one is pretty straightforward. Either they are working freelance to save "someone", (perhaps they know it's royalty that they are rescuing, but have been told no more than that) and when it is revealed that it is the Prince that they are rescuing, the reveal comes that it is their brother.

The advantage of this is that the reader has no reason to believe that the narrator is unreliable. The brothers can even discuss their older brother, and it never need to come into consideration that they themselves are royalty at all. You can establish their backstory without needing to include plot points that you don't wish to reveal to the reader.

The downside of this is that the characters would not have the same emotional attachment to their quest until the reveal. This may work in your favor plot-wise or in developing your characters, but it might mean the journey is a little hollow to begin with as they would just be on a generic rescue mission.

It would also be stacking many reveals on top of each other (that the person captured is the heir, that it is their brother, and that they are also royalty). You can always space these reveals out, but the captive being who it is would need to come last, as the other things would need to come immediately after if they had not been revealed yet.

2. They don't acknowledge it's their brother

This is the "having your cake and eating it too" option. The brothers know who the captured person is, but they do not acknowledge their relationship to him. The reader never finds out what's really going on until you want them to, but the characters will act the same throughout the story as they know what's going on all along.

This can be done, and I've seen a good example of it. Following is a massive spoiler for The Banned And The Banished series by James Clemens:

From the very beginning of the 5 books in the series, the narrator of the entire story refers to the main character as "the Wit'ch" or "betrayer" etc. and it is immediately understood he holds incredible disdain for her. Over the course of the books in the prologues and epilogues he comes to understand the reasons why she made the choices she did, and slowly comes to forgive her. At the end of book 5 the reader learns the narrator is the MC's brother, and he acknowledges her as "sister", as he finally accepts the role he played in the story (which is significant), and realizes that it was he who was in the wrong the whole time.

The POV character(s) could simply refuse to acknowledge their relationship to their older brother. Perhaps he was abusive, or entitled due to being the heir, or they resent him for being next in line for the throne. They could simply refer to him as "the bastard" or "Prince Perfect", establishing their feelings towards him and never revealing that he is related to them.

The downside to this method is that you cannot go into much depth about their relationship with him. If you start to establish any sort of backstory between them, unless it's done very carefully it may become obvious that they are related. You might be able to drop hints about it, but if you want it to come entirely out of the blue it may be difficult to fool a perceptive reader for that long.

It also might make the reader question why they are rescuing him at all. If they hate him so much, why would they risk their lives and not let him rot, or not just send some hired goons to rescue him? They could maybe have been ordered to do it by their parents, or feel they have a duty, but it may be a little convoluted for the reader.

3. They don't acknowledge that they're royalty

It could be just a mission to save their older brother that they love, which later becomes a mission to save the realm when it is revealed to the reader who their target is. The readers get to find out who the characters are, why they are doing what they are doing, and what the relationship and backstory is like between the three of them.

This allows you to establish to the reader all of the backstory much better, and the reveal can come much later in the story, as it is realistic that they would journey to rescue their older brother without any sort of additional motive needed.

However, much like option 2 you would be limited in how much backstory you can give. You would have to focus more on the brothers playing in a garden as children as opposed to any memories of official functions. Perhaps you can let on that they are nobility, so they could reminisce about attending fancy banquets without revealing who they really are, and if they are well-mannered and trained in weaponry then it may be difficult to ignore their backstory altogether.

You would also need a convincing reason for them to not even think about who they really are. Perhaps they are ashamed of being royals and just want to be ordinary folk. But you would also have to avoid the reader questioning why their older brother was kidnapped in the first place if he is supposed to be just a nobody.


There will be more options, but those are the best 3 I can come up with. However, I would encourage you to read this about whether to put the plot twist in at all (which is more an answer to your other question, but it relates to this too).

Having a normal Hero's Journey, which has a huge plot twist in the middle and then resumes as normal, is entirely exploitative to the reader. If it's supposed to function as a big shock just to engage the reader without any thematic reason, then it might be better not to include the twist at all.

However, including the twist and having it as part of the theme of the story can be incorporated into any of the three options. Whether that's 1) trickling gradual reveals about the main characters into the story, 2) a story about rebuilding a relationship with an estranged sibling, or 3) having them come to accept their responsibility as royalty, the way the secret is kept from the reader, and how the eventual reveal is manufactured will be very important to the overall arc of your characters and your story.

share|improve this answer

(spoilers) I second the user who recommends reading Agatha Christie's novel,

'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd'.

One of the finer points of the novel was the fact that the narrator spends much of the time dwelling on other characters in the story rather than himself, its almost as if he is a secondary character rather than the arch typical narrator who is almost always assumed to be the 'hero' someone who reveals everything to the reader through steam of consciousness or some other trope.

Want more proof? watch The Usual Suspects if you haven't already.

share|improve this answer
    
If the story is told by a narrator or in first person, then that character chooses what he/she wants to talk or think about. While he/she wouldn't (normally) lie to him/herself, there's nothing to stop him/her from selectively editing what they tell you. That's why it's called "his-story" and not "the truth". Everyone has biases even if they try to be objective. – Joe Mar 23 at 6:44

tl;dr on all the answers here, but I'm actually facing the exact same quandary in my own novel. In addition, the secret the MC is keeping (his career) would come up conversationally between himself and the rest of the characters, so it's a constant struggle.

I am employing a number of different tactics.

  1. Making the secret a known-unknown to the reader In other words, the reader knows there is a secret, because of the MC's (and exposition's) lack of specificity. By being glaringly obvious that I'm not going to come out and tell them what the MC does, the reader knows that there is a secret to find out, and I can lay breadcrumbs to keep them turning the pages. When I was first concepting the story, this was a sticking point. When I decided, oh wait, this could fun, it became a commodity. It adds a mystique to the MC, and gives the reader something else to look forward to in the book. Plus, it's not a sudden, unprojected surprise.

  2. Misdirection I tweaked my concept once I decided to embrace point 1, adding a couple supporting characters, and voila, I have red herrings everywhere. I am intentionally using specific language and situations to suggest to the reader that the MC does X for a living, and I will often write as though X were indeed true. It helps me to embrace the lie, as the MC does (Method Writing? wink) and further obfuscate the truth. When situations arise in which the MC has to actively cover, I don't hide that from the reader, just the characters.

    With that in mind, I decided on third-person limited multi-perspective. It allows me to give clues from the MCs POV, and when I'm writing from other characters' POV, I try to fill in the blanks of what the reader might be asking of themselves (wait, if he does X, why would he say that?) and also further misdirection with their own theories of what he does.

  3. I sweat a lot Which is to say that this is really fn hard to write. I'm constantly checking my language and phrasing and keeping notes (Scrivener footnotes and thumbtacks are really helpful for this) on what I say and how I say it. Obviously I don't want it to read clunky, and I don't want to disenfranchise my reader, I want to use that mystery as a subplot to draw them into main plotline. So I read and re-read what I write, and I have a brilliant, sexy, red-headed editor to bounce drafts off of.

    I might recommend finding a writing circle (Write On, Critique Circle, et al), and doing control experiments. Keep one group in the dark, let the other in on the secret, and then ask each to give you their feedback on how it's progressing. Does this make sense? What do you think the secret might be? How did you come to that conclusion? Is it frustrating or fun? Etc. A potential benefit to this technique is that readers can often come up with wonderful theories that you can employ in the book!

  4. Backspace You can use Shft+Left/Right/Up/Down arrow keys to select larger selections of text for deletion. How do I know this little shortcut? I'm using the same tactic! ;)

Did I mention that this is really hard? Don't expect to get it right the first time. But if you can pull it off, it can only add to the story. Cheers.

share|improve this answer

The novel Engleby by Sebastian Faulks does this, with a very simple and well known trick.

The novel is about the fallout from the murder of a young woman. It eventually becomes clear that the narrator is responsible, but the stress of the event has caused him to suppress the memory of his deed.

You'll have seen similar things done is other novels before, although not usually with the POV character. The author's skill here is in misdirecting the reader and slowly dropping clues as to what's going on.

In short, there are many ways of doing what you want. Doing them in a manner that doesn't feel artificial or stereotypical is, however, difficult.

share|improve this answer
2  
Off topic, but I have to ask: how do you make that spoiler? – Thomas Myron Mar 17 at 20:48
2  
@Tommy There is spoiler markup - use >! at the beginning of each line. – Kit Z. Fox Mar 17 at 21:26
    
Sometimes intense situations cause some loss of memory; but I hate it when an unbelievable lack of knowledge is supposed to have resulted from trauma. I haven't read that book, but from this, it sounds less than believable to me. This is a good thing to keep in mind though; sometimes it might be more plausible, and some people probably don't mind it as much. – Kai Maxfield Mar 18 at 1:53
    
@KaiMaxfield I get what you're saying, but that's kind of my point. In the hands of highly skilled writer like Faulks, what sounds ridiculous in principle can work in practice. There is also more to it than I've let on in that brief summary - don't want to give too much away. – Matt Thrower Mar 18 at 9:05

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.