My last “free fiction” post, as most of you have noticed, is a great example of a joke, but not such a good example of a story. Jokes depend on surprise. If a reader or listener isn’t surprised, it’s nigh unto impossible to get a laugh out of them. Surprise is also the basis of suspense, which is arguably even more important to the storyteller than humor is. Surprise depends on the reader or listener not having all the information until the moment that you want it revealed. But readers really resent it when the author deliberately withholds information from them, especially when that information is known to the point-of-view character (a common cheat used by mystery writers) or when that information would be painfully obvious to anyone present in the scene (as is the case with that “Eternal Love” story I subjected y’all to). So how can you surprise a reader without making them feel cheated? In other words, how much information can you hide in plain sight?
To explore one basic technique, I’m going to cite an example that I’m assuming most of you have read, but regard this as a spoiler alert for the Harry Potter books.
The plot of the final book revolves around Harry, Hermione, and Ron looking for “horcruxes.” Rowling did a beautiful job of hiding those horcruxes in plain sight in the earlier books.
I’m going to start by citing Salazar Slytherin’s locket, because it’s the one I spotted. I’m not particularly clever. I’m just an example of the type of reader that this technique doesn’t work on. Rowling used a classic technique of burying it in the middle of a list in the middle of a paragraph. Specifically, it was a long list of items that our heroes were cleaning out of a silver cabinet in an earlier book. Lists like these feel to readers like window dressing, setting a scene. Readers tend to skim lists, and tend to skim sections that don’t involve the plot appearing to move forward. The cleaning out of the silver cabinet felt like a bit of time-filler, and therefore encouraged people to overlook it. Note, however, that not everyone will. I’m a fairly slow and detail-oriented reader, so I caught the bit about a heavy locket that no one could open, and so when it was revealed that they were looking for a locket and that the note from its thief was signed with the initials of Sirius Black’s brother, I made the connection instantly. Most of my friends did not.
I, however, completely missed Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem. And I kicked myself when I realized I had done so. (That, incidentally, is the reaction a satisfied reader will have when you surprise them.) And the reason I missed that one is that it was revealed as part of a more intense scene. Harry was urgently hiding something, and knocked over a bust, upsetting the diadem that rested on its head. Yes, I went back and checked the earlier books when it was revealed in Deathly Hallows that that’s where it was. I missed that detail because I was reading quickly and excitedly. The upsetting of the proverbial applecart read to me purely as upping the stakes on Harry’s efforts to dispose of something plot-urgent in secrecy.
And that, to me, is the key. When the critical information is woven into the story in a way that feels like it’s doing something else in the story, readers, in general, both miss it and remember it when you reveal that it was actually important. If you just mention it without it appearing to do something important, readers wonder why it’s included and are more likely to remember it. (And that’s especially important if you don’t later pay it off, because they’ll always wonder what was up with that one obscure, little detail you included.) In that case you haven’t surprised them, you’ve broadcast your intentions.
The locket was a small detail in a bigger scene about trying to make Sirius Black’s house habitable. Anyone who wondered why Rowling took time there thought the payoff when when one of the members of the Order of the Phoenix was revealed as a thief who had subsequently stolen all the silver.
The diadem was a small detail in a bigger scene about Harry trying to cover his tracks after having done something he really, really shouldn’t have.
See the pattern?
Of course, writers have used other techniques over the years, but I think that’s a digestible technique for us all to play around with for now. What do you think? How can you weave in information that will be useful later while making it look like you’re doing something else in the story?