Friday, March 1, 2013

Giving Too Much Away

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

typewriterAs I wrote last week, I’ve really had a time with my current story. I’ve kept moving forward with it, but wondering about the root problem with the book. There were many problems with the story (oh boy!), but I couldn’t figure out what the global story issue was.

As I was finishing another scene where I was just treading water, I finally hit on it: I’d answered all the questions I’d posed.

Not the murderer, obviously…I haven’t gotten to the end of the book.  But I stated everything, up front, at the very beginning of the book.

So, I basically introduced suspect #1, stated the suspect’s motive (same with suspects 2-4) and spent the rest of the draft rehashing what I’d already told the reader.

That makes for a boring book.

And it’s extraordinary that I did this, because I’d had this same revelation several books ago and vowed never to get into this mess again.

There is a very basic, if time-consuming, fix.  When I write my second draft, I’m taking out every instance where I outright gave away the motive.  I’m going to hint that there is a motive and indicate that the character is a suspect through gossip, observation, etc.  Then the sleuth actually gets to go talk to people and uncover motives.

That’s what sleuths do.  And I’d just taken away the sleuth’s job from her.  No wonder my protagonist, Myrtle’s, voice was out of whack throughout the story.  Myrtle was uncomfortable with the way I was writing the book.

Of course, this entails rewriting the entire first third of the book. 

I don't think I've ever had quite as massive of a rewrite, but I know my plan for addressing it--not until the first draft is over.  So, how do you accomplish such a feat?  Just mark (I use Word's highlighting option) the place where you started writing the book after you made your dreadful realization. So I'm marking a sentence in my book.  Everything after that point is in line with my discovery--I'll be uncovering motives of the suspects after that point. 

Then I'll rewrite the beginning of the book to reflect the change.

How to avoid getting into this mess to begin with (whatever your genre):

Ask yourself what your protagonist knows.  If he or she knows too much at the beginning of the story, then you’re going to have the same problem I had—you’ll be rehashing some of the same stuff repeatedly.

Think about what information you’ve given the reader at the beginning of the story or early on.  If you haven’t raised enough unanswered questions, are they going to get bored?  Will they keep reading even though there’s really no answers to be found later on?

The questions posed don't have to be as big as mine (motives for suspects).  You can do the same with smaller questions: what does this character have to hide?  Why are two friends now not speaking to each other?  Why did Jim lose his job?  What was behind Selma's emotional outburst at dinner? Delaying answering these smaller questions increases tension and helps provide the story with some extra intrigue. And holding off revealing the answers gives the readers incentive to keep reading.

Have you ever given too much away too early in your story?  How do you remind yourself not to?  I’m considering a big sticky note on my laptop…

Image: MorgueFile: Alvimann