Recently, I came upon this opinion/rant post condemning authors that keep secrets from their readers for shock value and last-minute plot twists, and it got me thinking about what a reader should be allowed to know from the get-go. After looking into it, here are my two cents along with iconic examples.
I thought of Vicious by V. E. Schwab first — a book that makes readers wait for the root of the conflict, leaving them intrigued and flipping through pages. Then, Leigh Bardugo’s ever-famous Six of Crows, which withholds backstory until it becomes plot-relevant. Six of Crows also keeps itself engaging enough that most readers don’t even think about the backstories of the protagonists until they are told them and shocked by it.
My further research came upon an author who also stated that “the reader knows what the POV character knows” and that “personally, I hate it when I read a novel and learn that the author has withheld essential information that the POV character knows.”
In Vicious, the chapters flip timeframes regularly from college days where the anti-hero antagonist and protagonist are roommates and friends to present-day scenes where the main character is actively trying to kill his former friend. This builds suspense and questions of how did we get here? Schwab uses that mindset a lot, with the first scene in the book being one of the main characters digging up a body without telling the reader why.
This doesn’t feel like cheating the reader, though, because the protagonist never hides his hate for the antagonist. His thought process doesn’t dwell on the exact events it came from, which means that a reader is not privy to the root, which means, of course, that they will have to read on to find out how the relationship turned sour as well as the aftereffects.
Red Queen and Hunger Games give overviews on the main character fairly quickly into the series — embellishing their pasts and struggles far enough to make them empathetic as well as demonstrate the nuances of their relationships (such as the one between Katniss and Gale). They also leave enough time in the series for more important development since neither protagonists’ past is connected to the development of the conflict. Both women's lower-class upbringing fuels fires, but neither is all that necessary once the politics of the books get involved.
In contrast, Six of Crows switches between six point-of-view characters, and it takes a while to even learn how they met. Referring to the original problem, this works as a perfect distraction — an impossible heist and budding dynamics that take the place of Inej and Kaz’s aversions to contact or Wylan’s dyslexia which serve as subplots and add room for character development later in the books.
What differs here from Vicious is that information is shown as necessary. This reminds me of a rule of thumb for short films, which is to start the scene as late as you can and end it as early as possible in order to get content in the timeframe. Vicious hangs that information over our heads to compel us to read, and while the plot is exceptional, the withholding makes it one of those books you finish in one sitting.
Six of Crows uses the information that we don’t know to propel the story. Bardugo hints at the reveals (for example, in a scene where the touch-averse Kaz expresses discomfort in a tight situation), but she doesn’t give us the backstory until the backstory becomes necessary to Kaz in terms of a romantic subplot. This isn’t one of those "romance is an end-all-be-all;" it’s just on a need-to-know basis for the reader, and it works.
Honestly, I disagree with the idea that withholding important information is cheap or anything. Protagonists are allowed to have secrets and be interesting. Vicious uses it effectively for engagement, and Six of Crows uses slightly shocking (but never out of the blue) backstory to make characters more empathetic and use them to drive plotlines as needed and both work.
Both are generally well-received works, and young writers can learn from seeing what the bloggers at the beginning thought was cheap versus these plotlines to build their own opinion. This is not to say that withholding information can’t be deceiving; it very much can if done poorly, but there is also a whole realm of possibility with what a writer chooses to tell their readers.
is a high school student in New Jersey. She likes (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and is always up to learn something new! Find her on Instagram at @writing_stoot.