Now, that’s just cheating

Spoiler warning: Skin Game (Jim Butcher), Inferno and The Lost Symbol (Dan Brown)

A while back, I posted an angst about point of view and the pacing of information reveals in my novel. My novel is, at its core, a mystery. The answers to the mystery gradually unfold for the reader as the protagonists investigate and make discoveries. In the first draft, I set a major “reveal” towards the end of the novel. The challenge was setting up that reveal without giving it away.

The novel uses rotating third person subjective points of view. This created a problem for my reveal, because there was more than one character whose point of view I wrote through who knew a lot more about what was going on than my putative protagonists. It seemed rather contrived to me that we could be in the head of a character who knows important information about the events unfolding around them, and they would fail to think about those events using the knowledge they had. It would be one thing if the novel’s point of view was the omniscient narrator, dancing around from head to head. But this is the subjective third person, where the narrator just is the character.

In the second draft, I moved the big reveal to a few chapters in from the beginning, and took the point of view of characters who knew too much out of rotation until I was ready to reveal what they knew. Better to have them remain enigmatic then let the reader enter their heads and have them somehow just not think things that would give the mystery away.

As a result of my struggle with this, I now have a low tolerance for published authors who hide the “big twist” at the climax of their novels by having characters who are already aware of this twist conveniently not think of it.

This is something Dan Brown has done flagrantly in his past couple novels. In both Inferno and The Lost Symbol, he reveals facts about particular characters towards the end designed to change the reader’s whole perception of the events of the novel. But he does this by taking us into their heads throughout the book and just not showing them thinking of things that are no doubt on their minds, such as, “How am I going to pull blah-blah-blah off without giving myself away?” Sometimes, Brown has characters think of events in their lives that are later revealed to never to have happened. Were they rehearsing their fake backstories to help pull off the con?

It just seems to me a simple fact of psychology that, if the stakes are high, and you are a character deliberately withholding information from other characters, you would think about what you knew. Because people? Don’t control their thoughts. We think what we think.

In retrospect, you can see the clues Brown scatters for you throughout his books that reveal the twist, which a twisty story should do, but you also see the cheating attempts at misdirection.

I’m not surprised by this sort of clumsiness from Brown, who knows oodles about history and archeology, but much less about writing. But it is also a reason I am less than fond of the latest Dresden Files novel, Skin Game. There’s a “big twist” towards the end of the novel in which Harry is in dire straights and an unexpected alliance is revealed that comes as a surprise to the double-crossing head of the expedition Harry is on, and to the reader.

Hiding that information from the reader is even clumsier in Skin Game than it is in Dan Brown novels, because Butcher’s readers spend the entire book in Harry Dresden’s head (indeed, it is written in the first person), and if anyone is an up-front guy, narrating his every thought and bit of reasoning (so much so it breaks up action sequences awkwardly), it’s Harry Dresden. The reveal, again, is well foreshadowed by Butcher, but I still contend the alliance would have been on Harry’s mind.

Maybe I shouldn’t worry about writing in the heads of a character and not revealing highly relevant things s/he knows. Heck, if bestselling authors get away with it, why shouldn’t I?

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