WHEN READERS KNOW WHAT A CHARACTER DOESN’T

The unknown is often what draws a reader into a story and keeps him there. It’s one of the hooks might appear early. Not as early as some, but soon. You know what I’m talking about: what the reader and one character know that another character does not. The secrets between the author and you. They are great tension builders.

In Abraham Verghese’s Cutting For Stone, you and Dr. Stone know who was the father of the nun who died while he brought her twins into the world. (Ahh, twins again.) No one else does. Horrifying as this was, it gripped me from the start. I could hardly wait for the revelation of the secret I alone was privy to. In Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, only you and Callie, the POV character, know the surprise that lies hidden in her genetic history. Eugenides make you wait what seems like forever to see when and how this secret is revealed to those who care about her. There being nothing you can do about it, you are on the edge of your seat, and you stay there.

I can’t speak for Verghese and Eugenides about how and when this comes to them as they grow their stories. In my Boundaries you know early on what critical information Ben keeps from Sydney about his identity. You can see when it is coming, and you know it will shock her. It’s the story’s first crossing of an ethical boundary and your first challenge to keeping your mind open to a POV character whose conduct is likely to be a problem for you. I don’t recall when this idea came to me, but it did not appear until after I had conceived of a way for them to meet by accident in the first place. Then, in order to build even more tension, I passed up numerous opportunities for Ben to speak the truth to Sydney in a time and manner that would reduce the horror of his omission. Making myself wait to find just the right time propelled me, the first reader, forward. It pleased me to do this with my nose to the ground, discovering as I go by listening to my characters telling me who they are as I create them on the page. Pure pleasure in the discovery, the organic creative process. Then I had to resurrect him in your eyes.

Can you think of a novel that put you in a place of greater knowledge about what is going than an important character? How did being in this position affect you when you first realized you were in it? If you write or tell stories, did something like this unfold? If so, how did you go about getting this secret relationship between the reader and the character onto the page?

Jim

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