Monday, September 30, 2013

Why Withholding is a Symptom of Lazy Writing.

Have you ever read a story where you thought something was happening, worried about the characters and then found out that what the writer had lead you to believe was dead wrong? Did it annoy you as much as it does me? Withholding is one of the main reasons why I take a writer off my "to be read" list.

Okay, so what do I mean by "withholding"? Simply put, withholding happens when  a point of view (POV) character knows information that is held back from the reader often in order to create a "twist" ending. There are a few times when withholding is appropriate. Withholding is expected in a "heist" story. Think "Ocean's Eleven" or "The Sting." The main character has a plan within a plan. His co-conspirators and the reader doesn't know what his real plan is until the first (and seemingly only) plan goes to heck. I love a good heist story even though I know the writer's withholding information from me.

Withholding is not when a character makes a false assumption. This device is often used in mystery novels. Whether the sleuth is a detective, private eye, college co-ed or a sweet old lady, the sleuth can be wrong. The hero thinks the killer is a man because of the strength required for the crime. Turns out the killer was actually a transgender woman. I just read a novel where the writer used this device and didn't have any issue with it. The "wrong" assumption was natural. Now, I did figure out the "twist" well before the reveal but that was because one plot line made no sense unless the seemingly random character in it was the killer. But to get back to the point when the main character makes a credible error the writer isn't withholding information.

So, let me give you an example.

The book I'm currently reading is part of a large series. It starts with a kidnapping in which at least one cop is killed and the potential kidnapping victim is rescued by our hero. It was a great scene. Until I learned that the kidnapping had been staged and my worry about the safety of my hero, who I've grown very attached to over the series, was unfounded. 

I was furious.


Because I'd invested so much time and energy in false tension. I'm still deciding if I'll pick up the next book in the series. Probably not.

Why is it lazy writing?

Because the writer could have hooked me by showing me the reason for the setup. Then I would have spent my time worrying whether the scam would work or not. Starting the story at the beginning (rather than having a lengthy flashback to set up the scam after it worked) would have given me a chance to know what the stakes were. I would have known why the hero was so desperate to be involved in the situation, and the lives that were actually at stake. I would have been more hooked had the writer bothered to tell me what was going on.

Withholding information generally breaks the contract a writer has with the reader. As a reader I trust you to give me the information I need to understand the story, or at least, the information that the point of view character has. If you withhold information to create false tension, I'm going to feel betrayed.

Another form of withholding is when the writer intentionally misleads the reader. Take the cross-gendered killer I mentioned earlier. I'd read another book from a well respected and well published author where the same twist was used. I will not read anything by that writer again. What's the difference between the transgender killed I mentioned above and this story?

In this one the writer used the killer's point of view and intentionally tricked the reader into thinking the killer was a he and not a she. The writer broke the covenant with me, the reader. The writer tricked me. I no longer had faith in that person's story-telling ability.

Why did the Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis work despite its significant withholding?

Two reasons. First, Bruce Willis's character doesn't know the withheld information. Second, there are clues throughout the movie that make sense in retrospect. The writers did a masterful job in subliminally giving you the needed information. The "big reveal" comes with a sense of "of course" and not betrayal. If you've never watched the movie you probably should. If you have, go back and watch for those clues.

Unless the story falls into the heist genre withholding shouldn't be a part of it. If the ONLY reason the "twist" ending works is because you withheld information or lied to the reader, you might want to rethink your plotting if you want me to pick up another of your books. At least, that's what I think.

So. what do you think?


Sharon Ledwith said...

LOL, spoken like a true lawyer, Nancy! A wonderful post, and yes I agree that readers invest far too much time (especially in a series) in a book to find out they've been bamboozled! I'd cut the author loose too! Cheers!

Huntress, aka CD Coffelt said...

There was a TV show that did this all the time. It's gone now. Cancelled. Gee, I wonder why?

Vonnie said...

Totally agree, Nancy. Withholding leads to irritability on the reader's part and of course that leads to "Never going to read one of his/her books again. They cheat."

Nancy DiMauro said...

Thanks for the comments Sharon, Huntress and Vonnie.

We read or watch TV for fun/ enjoyment. We invest a lot of time in the story or show. Dallas almost didn't survive the "Who Shot J.R." twist because it was such a betrayal. Stories that trick the audience don't last and don't get the audience coming back for more.

Sloane Taylor said...

A little late to this party, but I am going to add my two cents anyhow. Nancy, you are absolutely RIGHT! Not only is withholding unfair to the reader, it is plain crappy/lazy writing!!! And if we were face to face with martinis I'd really let loose. lol Great post, Nancy.