It’s a well known fact that ignorance is a vital part of any story. Once the reader knows everything about a story they’re at the end of it, aren’t they? The art of keeping things from the reader is known as suspense and it’s a vital part of just about any narrative.
There’s a lot of ways to keep the reader guessing about what’s going on, a sort of grab-bag of narrative gambits that will keep the reader guessing. It can range from something simple, like not revealing a character’s plans to the reader, to something very complex like having the story told from the first person perspective of a man suffering from short term memory loss. These gambits are perfectly good tools for building suspense and keeping your reader interested in what’s going on.
Right up until they’re not.
I was reading a story recently that centered around a group of four characters. One was wanted for a crime and wouldn’t comment on whether they were guilty or not. One was a former criminal who claimed to be trying to go straight. One claimed there was a ghost telling her secrets and reading minds. One just seems irresponsible and reckless. The narrative doesn’t really do anything to clear up their motives or whether they’re sane and trustworthy or crazy and dangerous.
Then all four are captured and get brainwashed. Maybe. I think. That part’s a bit unclear.
And they might be hypnotically programmed to turn on each other and there are suddenly weird gaps in their memories and nothing makes sense any more because you weren’t sure how much they could be trusted in the first place and GAH! It was so frustrating because it seemed like such an interesting story to start off with. I liked the characters and the story was going somewhere. But there were so many narrative gambits at work that I couldn’t figure out anything that was going on anymore and I gave up. The writer had baked a gambit souffle and it fell in.
Writers love reading and we particularly love reading stories that show us a well used literary device. And it’s the nature of the beast such that, once we read a story with a good device, we want to try it out for ourselves. I’m sure you’ve felt this urge before. You may even want to combine multiple literary devices together and make a wonderful concoction of clever scenarios and deft writing.
But you should probably resist that urge.
You see, the problem with gambit souffles is they do tend to fall in. Let’s take a look at the example I gave earlier. Not only do we have unreliable narrators in a scenario where it looks like no one can be trusted. We also have brainwashing, casting the characters motivations into even more doubt, and blatant memory gaps on top of, in one or two cases, entirely contradictory memories. It’s so hard to build a coherent picture of what’s going on that you can’t sympathize with anyone or judge whether they’re taking actions that will benefit them or hinder them.
Narrative techniques like unreliable narrators or literary devices like amnesia help a story by building suspense or helping the reader become immersed in the story. But pile to many on and the reader starts to have more questions than answers and are likely to get frustrated by the lack of information long before they get invested in the story.
Some time ago I did a series of pieces on the obligations a writer has and their first obligation is to their audience. Without an audience a writer is just daydreaming and a confused audience is going to stop paying attention sooner or later, and probably sooner. So as a writer, it’s important that you don’t get so caught up in your literary techniques and your narrative gambits that your audience gets lost. Have people read your work and ask them what they think. If they’re confused don’t explain the story to them, ask them what they think is going on and if they’d want to keep reading.
If they don’t know what was going on consider asking how you could clarify it. But first, ask if they’d keep reading until things became clear. If they would you may not need to change anything, they may just be pleasantly confused and waiting to see how the protagonist sorts things out. But if you’ve lost them entirely then your story is failing and it really needs an overhaul.
Remember, writing isn’t done for the sake of the techniques you use while doing it, writing is to convey ideas from you to your audience. Test your gambit souffles on audiences to make sure it’s holding up, because if your story falls in on itself it’s doing no one good.