Don’t Play Coy With Your Readers

Don’t Play Coy With Your Readers
Terry Odell

Don't Play Coy With Readers

Image by Tayeb MEZAHDIA from Pixabay

One of my first writing lessons was Point of View. I learned it was a good idea to stick to one character at a time (and ‘time’ means more than a paragraph or two).

As a reader, I discovered I connected more with characters if I was privy to their thoughts. There are no hard and fast rules about Point of View beyond it’s important that readers can keep track of whose head they’re in.

My preference is to use Deep Point of View, which is sometimes called Close or Intimate, and that’s the focus of today’s post. What you call it isn’t as important as making sure that your readers can’t know anything your POV character doesn’t know. Or see. Or feel. Or smell. Or hear. It’s very close to writing in first person.

POV is a powerful tool, because by controlling the POV character, you control what you reveal to the reader. As I said above, the reader is only privy to what the character knows. On the flip side of that coin, if the POV character sees, smells, feels, or hears something, the reader should, too.

In my current WIP, my female lead knows why she quit her job, and is aware of some less-than-ethical behaviors of her boss. I’m eight chapters in, and she doesn’t want the male lead to know the details yet. But she can feed him bits and pieces as circumstances arise. The way I see it, it’s the author’s responsibility to find legitimate ways to withhold information from readers until it’s time to reveal it.

Which brings me to a couple of recent reads which had my hackles up. Both were written in first person POV. That puts the reader right into that character’s head, the same way Deep POV does.

In one book, the character read a letter; in the second she looked at a photograph. In both instances, the characters had strong emotional reactions to what they’d just seen. These books were both mysteries, and this “secret” information provided important clues.

But—and this is where I would have screamed out loud, had it not been late at night with someone sleeping nearby—both authors opted to hide this information from the reader. They simply avoided the reveal. The characters mulled it over, worried about it, wondered if they should tell another character, weighed the pros and cons. On and on. But never did they mention the name of the person in the photograph or the contents of the letter. The characters knew what they’d seen, so there was no reason the reader shouldn’t other than the author was doing what one of my first critique group leaders called “Playing Coy With the Reader.”

And for me, it’s not fair, not if you’re writing in first person or deep POV. It’s like when a television show character gets a letter, opens it, reads it, and then … cut to commercial without letting the viewer know what it said. If, when the commercial is over, the action picks up where it left off before the break and either shows the letter or the characters talking about it, I’ll accept it as being a way to make sure viewers “stay tuned.”

Now, if the author breaks to a different POV character, I might forgive them if, when we get back to the first character’s POV, we get the reveal. But to put a reader in a character’s head and then yank them out when something important happens is likely to aggravate them rather than heighten the suspense (which is what the author is going for.) To me, it’s a cheat.

In one of the books, the author never put the information out there. In the other, it took a while, but the reveal did come, so I grumbled and gave the author another chance.

And that’s what might happen. Play coy with the reader and you might lose them, not just for this book, but for future books they’ll never read.

In a more distant point of view, where the author is telling the story more than the character, it might not be such an issue, but then—I don’t like distancing points of view. Your mileage may vary.

All right, TKZers. What are your thoughts about authors withholding information a reader should have? Does it add a layer to the read for you, or frustrate you?

(I’m away from cyberspace this morning, but will be back later this afternoon to respond to comments.)

Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellNow available for Preorder. Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

32 thoughts on “Don’t Play Coy With Your Readers

  1. Good morning, Terry. Thanks for an interesting take on the topic. To be honest, it doesn’t bother me too much, given that the “unreliable narrator” has been so de rigueur in suspense fiction. I am generally skeptical of most of what a first-person narrator is telling me anyway until proven innocent.

    Enjoy your trip away from cyberspace!

    • Thanks, Joe. I tend to have my own approach/opinions and I’m not a fan–at all–of an unreliable narrator. I like to be able to trust my protagonist “friends” on the page.

      (You’re such an early bird. I haven’t left yet.)

  2. Good topic, Terry. I do not like the author withholding information, especially when the story is in deep third POV or first. It doesn’t fit the whole idea of an intimate POV.

    Early in my studies of writing, I read a well-known male author who writes romance. When I reached the end of the book for the big reveal, and discovered the MC had known the information through most of the book, I knew I would read no more of his books.

    Have a great day!

    • Thanks, Steve. No matter how/what you write, you’ll never please everyone. I thought this might be an interesting discussion topic. We were watching a rerun of an episode of the original Mission Impossible series last night, and Mr. Phelps was getting his mission via one of those Nickelodeon type gizmos, and most of the time, it was seeing him looking into the playback, but not seeing what he was looking at–except for a brief glimpse of the bad guy they were going to foil. Minor irritation, because at least we got a peek, but I prefer seeing what he’s looking at.

  3. The Detection Club was a private, invitation-only group for writers of detective fiction in England, founded in 1929 by Dorothy Sayers. Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton were among the members. A new member had to go through a light-hearted ritual and pledge, among other things, “Never conceal a vital clue from the reader.”

    Your point about leaving a scene before the reveal to come later reminded me of what Janet Evanovich did once. She ended the book with Stephanie Plum choosing one of her two love interests to come to her place. Only she doesn’t tell us who it is! You had to buy the next book in the series to find out. MAYBE you can get away with this ONCE…and maybe only with a HIT series…

  4. Playing fair with the reader is a must. Yes, it’s difficult for the author who’s trying to maintain suspense and keep the villain’s identity a secret. But who said this writing gig was easy?

    If the author deliberately withholds info, I deliberately withhold reading any more of his/her books.

  5. Agreed. I don’t have a specific example to refer to, but yes, if they keep you waiting for a reasonable period of time for the sake of building tension, I’m okay with it. But never paying the moment off, that doesn’t fly.

  6. Not sure I would agree with your stance here. I have bought additional books from the same author to get more information about the character and/or setting.

    Actually last night I was ready about Hemmingway and the Iceberg Theory. Holding back or omitting information seemed to work well for him. Also, holding back information has been something I admired about many authors. When it’s done right you can drive tension and action.

    • There’s a difference between keeping some parts for later because the real life you created for your characters doesn’t stop at “The End” and not answering important questions about the closed story that each novel in a series should have. A good series novel has a story arc for THAT novel–the mystery must be solved or the current disaster averted. Then there’s the series arc which is usually the Big Bad’s Grand Plan which he’s been building through each novel’s events.

  7. Withholding information which the reader would normally pick up from a Deep 3rd or 1st POV is a no-no in my book, too, Terry. It’s not playing fair with the reader, but also, pushing the reader out of the immersion a Deep POV provides.

    I suspect some authors might withhold such information to generate suspense as in television, but that creates a camera eye situation, extending the narrative distance between the character and the reader. It might also be a failure to be consistent in POV, but I’m guessing a desire to generate suspense is mainly behind it.

    Much better to have a separate, more distanced 3rd person POV for the villain or a supporting character, if you really want to go the route of not revealing what a character discovered. But for me, it’s much more immersive to come up ways for the reader to share the suspense the character feels.

    • Dale, I like your idea of having a close or intimate POV for your protagonist and a more distant POV for the antagonist or love interest or secondary character. Why not?

    • Yes, Dale. Excellent points. In Deep POV, it’s hard to withhold information, but it can be done as long as it’s done fairly and appropriately. And there’s nothing more gratifying than having a reader say, “I didn’t see that coming, but when I looked back, it was all there.”

  8. Yup. Agreed, Terry. We must show the reveal to satisfy readers. In your example, it doesn’t make sense to withhold the letter if its contents caused conflict. Why not up the stakes through the reveal of this letter? That would aggravate me, too.

  9. Hmm. I’m on the fence here. I guess there’s a fine line between building suspense and cheating the reader. In my Jonathan Grave series, I’ve made it clear that Jonathan and Boxers departed the military short of retirement and under odd circumstances, but I’ve never revealed what those circumstances were. To do so would require a flashback that has never belonged in the story I was telling.

    Also, I think informational cliffhangers are terrific tools for building suspense, especially at space breaks and at the end of chapters. I agree it’s cheating if the withheld detail is key to how the character solves the mystery–thus denying the reader a chance to solve it first–but I don’t have a problem withholding full explanations.

    • Cliffhanger chapters are a mighty tool. Also, in my romantic suspense novels, I have 2 POV characters, and ending a scene with a POV switch is something I have no trouble with.
      But ending a book on a cliffhanger? That’ll be the last book I read from that author.

      When I wrote this post, it was showing one of my peeves. Everyone’s mileage will vary.

  10. Interesting point, Terry. I’m less concerned about the rules than whether the story works. Keeping information from the reader might be intriguing. On the other hand, it could be infuriating. Just depends on the particular situation.

    However, if the author withholds something at the end of the book to force the reader to buy the next book, they have lost me. Forever.

  11. Keeping a mystery slightly mysterious and being a coy jerk to the reader is a delicate dance, and we don’t want to step on the reader’s toes.

    One of my dances was a minor viewpoint character in a complex romantic suspense novel. The hero and heroine are in a small country that is being invaded by small armies of Columbian mercenaries. They keep hearing about a group led by El Segundo, one of my viewpoints. I had to be very careful with both his viewpoint and his inner thoughts because he really was the leader of a band of local defenders AND the hero’s older brother. I never lied, but I never told the complete truth either until the brothers came together.

    I also had a character who was pretending to be her brother, and her brother. Yes, it made sense, but, dang, was it difficult to play fair with the reader.

  12. Good points, Terry. As a reader, I much prefer close third or even deep POV. I would feel cheated by something like that, too. Easier for the writer to add intrigue, but how many readers would be turned off by withholding of information in that way?

    • Exactly, Jodie. If you think it’s important to withhold information, choosing a more distant POV approach would probably be a smarter option.

  13. Hi Terry – Great post, and I agree with your frustration about a 1st Person POV character’s failure to reveal information she knows. That said, I’d like your take on an exception I’d like to pose,

    In an early scene from the POV of my main character in my YA wip, her sidekick reveals a humiliating incident she experienced and an unflattering nickname she was given as a consequence. My main character promises never to reveal it; so, she doesn’t tell the reader either. After all, loyalty to her friends is one of her better traits.

    Near the end of the story, the sidekick reveals the nickname to the reader herself through her inner thoughts in a scene from her POV. This revelation is triggered by an incident similar to the humiliating one which led to her receiving the nickname in the first place. The final confrontation between my main character and her antagonist is sparked as a consequence of this incident.

    Would this exception work for you? Thanks! Lou

    • Lou, IMHO, your description sounds like a valid exception. You could have the main character swear not to tell and have her say something like: “That name will never pass my lips.” B/c you do eventually reveal the nickname, it sounds like you’re playing fair.

  14. This is why I like old-fashioned first-person stories, where there’s a narrative frame that the viewpoint character sat down and wrote out their story at some point. The narrator can simply announce that the contents of the important letter (or whatever) will be revealed at the proper time.

    In POVs where the story is sourceless, there’s a pretense that the story is untouched by human hands: it’s telling itself, without a narrator to intermediate between the events and the reader. So the contract between the story and the reader is only implied, and exceptions are hard to announce or smooth over.

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