Monday, June 6, 2011

Abstracting the Antithesis

Antithesis, Synthesis, Logic...

In a narrative the writer will often go to extensive lengths to explore and understand the logic of characters. Information may be derived from previous events, details and psychological conditioning of characters but it is often a question of where does the author stop displaying the information openly?

While a writer can be absolutely transparent with their main character's motivations it is ultimately necessary for them to keep information from their audience to construct a sense of emotion. Whether it is love, happiness or even fear, the only means of preventing a narrative from reaching an early conclusion is to withhold information from the main character and the audience.

As a story unfolds, the writer may have all of the motivations penned but to keep the level of tension high they do not reveal these to their audience. When the main character and audience are left with the question of 'Why?' it should not be answered right away and in-truth, in a horror or suspense it probably should not be answered at all.

Stephen King once wrote that nightmares exist outside of logic and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.

Questions are the driving force in a story. The narrative thrives on the antithesis of knowledge that the primary characters hold regarding the primary question. The characters journey to answer the defining question is the heart of any piece. Every step that the characters take will yield its own questions but the singular driving question should never find its' answer until the story draws to a close.

The driving logic behind characters' actions and their motivations can assist the audience in connecting with the piece but it is the absence of that knowledge, that logic, that can make an emotion resonate through a story. In the end the audience will demand an answer and to a degree it must be given but there is more power to be found in withholding the entirety of that logic. A narrative is not about the logic, the explanations, it is a story about the quest for those explanations.

How much information do you give your characters? Your audience?

13 comments:

Jill Kemerer said...

Since I write romance, my characters often live in a state of denial. We, the reader, know why they're acting the way they do, but the characters themselves often don't know or want to know until it's too late. I love that about books! It's fun to figure out what the motivation is. :)

PW.Creighton said...

Jill, thanks for stopping by. It is! Any piece can be intriguing and driving providing you conceal some information. The more you conceal from the audience and reveal in limited quantities the more tension you can add to a piece if done correctly.

Michele Shaw said...

I've been accused of holding back too much for too long...I'm working on that. I seem to have a hard time thinking it's all so transparent just because I know, forgetting that no one else does. I really love to leave a lot of room for imagination, so as with all things in life and writing, I'm trying to balance it out:)

Miranda Baker said...

I often make notes on my manuscripts "Don't frontload!" What I need to know to write it and what the reader needs to know to enjoy it are different...sigh! Thanks for the insight.

PW.Creighton said...

Michele, it does take some balancing but I think it has more to do with releasing teases of information by answering side-questions along the journey. The main question should never be answered until the end of the story. Will the couple get together? What fun would it be if it happened mid-story? Thanks for the comment!

Miranda, thanks for stopping by! True, it's not quite frontloading or info-dumping so much as refusing to answer the primary question or even hint at it's answer to leave the audience wondering. As King said, "there's little fun to be had in explanations" and it is true. A reader continues to read because they want an answer. Explain it all and there is no reason to continue reading.

Lyn Midnight said...

Good post. Well said too. :) I especially liked the Stephen King quote. Anyone who slaps one of those in any posts can get my scattered attention. :P So I definitely agree that a story should have a thread of mystery n, but I keep forgetting to apply this to my MC. I absolutely apply it to my antagonist however, which sadly makes him usually more interesting than the MC. Yike. Thanks for giving me brain-food to snack on. One can never get enough of that. ;)

PW.Creighton said...

Lyn, thanks for stopping by. Yeah, the greats became great for a reason and still have exceptional insight. It's still the larger picture that is obscured so often, I'm betting it's not your character that's missing that intrigue it may be a question you answered for the reader too soon. Sometimes we need to step back and see them for the elements of the piece.

Julie Musil said...

What a great question. I struggle with finding the right balance between what I hold back, and what I drizzle in. I don't want to be too obvious, and yet I don't want a frustrated reader. Oh, so much for me to still learn!

Natalie C. Markey said...

This is always a problem that I have to watch in my writing. I'm horrible at info dumping! I always know my main characters so well that I want to give the reader their life stories right away. WRONG! Obviously that won't make a good book, it won't get even close to making a great book, which I strive for. Some told me this trick once and I feel horrible not remembering who. So, I can take NO credit for what I'm about to say.

During the plotting write down all the background history, all the info that you know as the writer (AKA God of your story.) As you write, mark off the info as you reveal it. This will prevent repetition and help prevent info dumping. So far this tactic works for me.

Great topic!
Natalie

PW.Creighton said...

Julie, you are right, it is a challenge but the amount of info you trickle in can also determine your genre if you think about it. Thanks for stopping by!

Natalie, exceptional advice! We are so invested in the characters that we often forget our perspective is not the same as the audience. Thanks for sharing!

jamberry_song said...

I like to say "Show, don't tell; describe, don't explain." It amounts to about the same basic idea.

This is a pretty good write-up. Have you considered joining deviantArt? The literature community always needs good articles about writing processes.

Anne R. Allen said...

This is one of the major problems for the beginning writer. I see it all the time. We think we need to explain everything. Usually the reader needs a lot less info than you think.

On the other hand, sometimes writers will withhold information in order to create tension--this is usually annoying and comes across as a trick. (Like you don't know until the end that the characters are dogs)

Also annoying: when the POV character holds information from the reader. This may keep the pages turning, but the reader will not be pleased.

But it's fine if the reader knows something the character doesn't "Don't go in that house; it's got a ghost!"

So we have to learn when/how to withhold as well as reign in our info-dump tendencies.

BTW, I agree with E. Craig that this would be easier to read with a lighter bacground and dark font. It has a nice, noir look, but maybe you could tweak it. The photos are spectacular. And I love the room that shows for a second that's in the background.

And there's that word verification monster. You'll get more comments if you turn it off.

Anne R. Allen said...

I meant rein.:-) Maybe we need to reign over our inner info-dumpers, too.

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