Last night, I was working on the third scene of a new story, working title of “Immigrant” and about halfway into the scene I realized that my main character is being a close-mouthed bastard. The story is third-person and limited to the point of view of the protagonist. But even here, he is alluding to things and then getting distracted before those things can come to the foreground. This is a problem.
When I was a less experienced writer, I thought this technique was a good way to increase the tension of a story. What I have learned through experience (read: many, many rejection slips) is that there is a fine line between holding back information to increase tension and holding back information to annoy your reader. A story is supposed to unfold naturally. These days, if I find a character of mine is being a close-mouthed bastard constantly, I take it as a sign that I am trying too hard and need to take a step back and ask what it is I am trying to accomplish.
In this particular story there is a kind of twist about midway through that I think will have a somewhat chilling effect on the reader. But if the reader guessed what was going on before they got to this point, it isn’t the end of the world because I still think there is an emotional impact to what is happening to my protagonist. There isn’t really a reason for him to be such a close-mouthed bastard, except perhaps in the first scene, because it works well there. In the second draft, I think I’m going to need to back away from this and try to get things to flow more naturally.
It occurs to me that I complained about this very phenomenon in one of the later Harry Potter movies, #5 I think. Whenever it comes on TV and I happen to catch a glimpse of it, I turn to Kelly and say, “Is this the one where Harry is a close-mouthed bastard?” If it annoys me, imagine how it must annoy readers.
So how to do you prevent your POV character from keeping too much information from the reader without sacrificing tension in the story? I’m not sure how I’ve done it in other stories, but I think it goes something like this: a story is a journey an as the author you are the guide. You want to make the journey as interesting as possible. If you are going to hold back a crucial piece of information, you had to lay some breadcrumbs that get the reader activity participating in the guessing game. If the reader doesn’t realize they are even playing the game and are swept away by the story, you’re probably doing it right. If they start to feel like they are playing a guessing game, that there is information out there that they should already know, you’ve lost them.
That’s about the best I can describe it. Usually, I work this out in the second draft. When I see it happening fairly early in a first draft, I worry a little.
What about my other writer friends? Do you ever find yourself with characters acting like close-mouthed bastards?