Oct 21, 2011, 7:17 pm
Tags: , 7 Comments

I’m knee-deep in messy, messy edits right now, but I figure y’all don’t want to hear about that.

Instead, I was curious to hear what you guys thought about the plot device of side characters withholding information from the narrator. I’ve been on a reading binge this past month, and that situation came up more than once, and it bothered me a lot more than I expected.

Not always, of course. When done right, there’s a lot of narrative tension in a situation like this. People around your character have information they’re trying to find out — heck, that happens in almost

No, when it bothers me is when I can't figure out why those people are being so secretive. I need to know and understand their motives. Otherwise this just seems like a cheap plot device. Sometimes it’s easy: They’re the villain! Other times, it’s never explained in the book and no reason I can come up with fits.

Another common trope is when the character is ostensibly on the main character’s side, but they’re being weirdly cryptic — and sometimes the MC won’t even press further! If the person sitting across from you has information that could save people’s lives, it’s really not the time for politeness. And again, explain why the character is so cryptic.

Basically, your character needs to be asking the same questions the reader is. And if they’re not getting answers? There had better be a good reason for it. Otherwise, the tension feels fake.

Am I the only one bothered by this plot device? Do share! :)

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7 Responses to “Withholding Information as a Plot Device”

  1. Reply Nick Tramdack  () says:

    The worst is when it's a character on the protag's side who knows in detail about the protag's secret backstory (like, her destiny is to draw the legendary sword or "unite the powers of light & darkness" or whatever)… but never bothers to tell her in detail, because "there's no time", despite the fact that they spend entire days traveling from place to place.

  2. Reply Phoebe  () says:

    Not the only one at all! I'm likewise frustrated by it. It can be done well, but only with a great deal of control on the part of the author (Justine Larbalestier's Liar is a good example). It drives me nuts. Happens all the time on TV especially. I spent a lot of time screaming at the screen during LOST: "Just ask why you're on the damned island!" etc. etc.

  3. Reply Beth C.  () says:

    There are a few books that completely turned me off because of how secrets were used to artificially drag out the plot. It needs to be used with a light touch or it can really ruin a book.

  4. Reply Merc  () says:

    Oh yeah. This bugs me more often than not–okay, if you're a spy and can't disclose information, I get it. But holding back info just to be Mysterious and Cryptic or to string along a plot artificially makes me want to go MERC SMASH on things.

    It can be well done, and there are, naturally, valid reasons to withhold information. It just drives me nuts when it's NOT done well. (Heh, I may have more feelings on this than I expected.)

  5. Reply Katey  () says:

    It bugs the hell out of me. Sometimes there are ways to do it, like Merc says — there are oftentimes valid reasons to withhold info. But the "Big Misunderstanding" as a plot engine is a delicate thing, and needs to be handled with extreme care. It can honestly turn a reader off… and I am one of those readers.

    You are TOTALLY not alone :D

  6. Reply Joshua Leach  () says:

    I have been watching the series 'Grimm' and it is so full of this plot device that I went searching to see if there is a term for this horrible tension builder. Everyone around the MC knows so much info and yet tell the MC so very little. Do you know if there is a term for this behavior/plot device? I am writing a song about things I dislike in certain stories and I don't want to use an entire verse to explain this annoying plot device.

    Joshua Leach

    • Reply Corinne  (corinneduyvis) says:

      Hi Joshua,

      Sorry for the slow response — things have been a little chaotic on my side :)

      I'm afraid I have no idea what it might be called, I'm afraid. When you find out, do let me know, since I'm curious as well. Good luck!

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