This one’s personal for me. I’m a teen author who started my middle-grade fantasy book, The Shadow in Her Pocket, when I was 9 years old. Since it was my first novel, my writing process had a pretty steep learning curve.
I really struggled with deciding when and where to reveal information to readers. When I started drafting, I really liked the idea of structuring puzzles within my story—so I ended up omitting or under-explaining crucial details in my first draft, even when withholding information from the reader was unnecessary. Obviously not ideal.
But then, what is ideal? While revising my novel, I analyzed my favorite fiction books to study how those authors revealed information. Since writing is subjective, there’s more than one way to approach the concept of withholding information from readers.
I noticed three different methods: readers knowing more than characters, characters knowing more than readers, and characters knowing the same as readers. I outlined the most important guidelines for each category using examples of books that aced it. Read on for the advice that would have spared me a bit of rewriting and a whole ton of stress.
Drawing the Line for Withholding Secrets in Young Adult and Middle-Grade Novels
When Characters Know More Than Readers
Stories where the characters know more than the readers are probably the most difficult to pull off effectively, and they’re rare for Middle Grade and Young Adult books. If your characters have access to information that you withhold from your readers, you’re running a big risk that your readers will be annoyed by your story. But if you’re judicious with your secrets, you’ll knock your readers’ socks off.
A great example is Jennifer A. Nielsen’s YA fantasy book, The False Prince. This was one of my favorite books in middle school because of how Nielsen hides the truth about the protagonist’s identity in plain sight. The protagonist, Sage, consistently lies to the other characters about a crucial detail of his past, and the narration never explicitly alerts the reader to Sage’s deceit until he reveals his secret towards the end of the book. A few important things made this work.
First, there was a genuine plot-based reason for Sage to keep this secret, because he risked explicit danger (which was emphasized in the book) if he revealed his past to the other characters. If, as a reader, I hadn’t received a reasonable explanation as to why I’d been deceived, I would have been irritated instead of impressed.
Don’t choose the route of misleading your readers without really examining whether it makes sense for your story. Withhold only one or two main pieces of information so that your story isn’t cryptic and frustrating to read. In fact, it shouldn’t be obvious to the reader that you’re hiding anything at all.
Sage wasn’t a blank character. Nielsen detailed his past, his personality, and his wants—and even though one aspect of the backstory was false, a lot of it was based in truth. This way, Sage wasn’t a bland character for half of the book, and when I realized his lie, I still felt like I understood his character. If you’re misconstruing a character’s identity, don’t skimp on their backstory or development just because your character is hiding one thing from the reader.
Plus, even though Sage’s secret wasn’t explicitly revealed to the reader for half of the book, Nielsen started planting clues about the truth from the very beginning. Therefore, I didn’t feel like the plot twist was an afterthought. After the big reveal, everything clicked into place in my mind. Plus, the hints made the book warrant rereading, since I went back to find the ones I’d missed.
When Readers Know More Than Characters
MG/YA novels where readers know more than characters are fairly common. Almost any third-person story with an omniscient narrator falls into this category, as do books with a “naive narrator.” Naive narrators are characters who don’t understand the implications of what they’re saying, typically used to make a point (think of Huckleberry Finn’s character used to criticize the injustices of the South). However, omniscient narrators are more common. Consider Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, a Young Adult WWII historical fiction book. Part of what made this novel stand out was its narrator: Death, personified.
Throughout the novel, Death reveals information about events before they happen in the plot (before the characters have access to this information). For instance, at the very beginning of the novel, Death briefly recounts the times he met the protagonist, Liesel (i.e. when Liesel witnessed someone die), even though most of those deaths occur much later in the story.
This surprised me as a reader; normally, the author doesn’t immediately reveal anything about how many people are going to die in the end. It reminded me of how I used to skip ahead and peek at the end of a novel when I was younger—except, in this case, the spoiler would be the author’s fault, not mine.
However, Zusak doesn’t reveal too much information about the future scenes because they’re so specific, like snapshots in time. Instead of feeling that I knew everything that was going to happen in the plot, I was intrigued. I kept reading to discover the context leading up to those moments because the story wasn’t linear enough that I could guess just from Death’s snapshots. And, because the snapshots introduced the characters through simple yet compelling actions (like a child placing a stuffed animal in the arms of a dying pilot), I was eager to learn more about those characters.
There are a million ways where immediately revealing such crucial information could turn readers away. If you choose to write a book in a similar manner, proceed with caution. Zusak needed to walk a razor-thin line between keeping the “spoiler” information detailed enough to make sense for the reader, but vague enough to keep the reader interested in the rest of the story. If the plot was more predictable, or if the story was less character-centric, I would have lost interest.
In this case, I adored Death’s insights, and this unique style of storytelling made the book truly memorable. Like any omniscient narrator, Death was able to explain things like the backstories of supporting characters, or the causes of specific military errors. Most importantly, through the narration of Death, Zusak was able to expand on The Book Thief’s themes of war, loss, and human nature.
When Readers and Characters Know the Same
Giving your readers the same amount of information as your perspective characters is not a bad idea. It’s the route I ultimately chose for my novel, and it’s pretty foolproof for the majority of first/third person limited YA/MG stories. As long as you’re conscious of the balance between information dumps and clearly explaining the situation, you’ll be good to go.
Don’t spend too much time on minor details until they’re necessary, but give your readers a good idea of your story’s setting, context, and characters. Readers should know the specific danger (whether emotional or physical) at stake if your characters fail to meet their goals.
Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven, an MG fantasy, takes this approach of keeping the reader just as informed as his protagonist. Even though the book is written in third person, it’s a limited point of view, and Mull places the reader in the mind of his protagonist, Kendra. The reader has access to everything Kendra experiences, remembers, and thinks—nothing more, nothing less.
In the beginning of the story, neither Kendra nor the reader has any idea that Kendra’s grandparents are guardians of a magical reserve called Fablehaven. As Kendra begins to piece together this truth, readers have access to the same clues and Kendra’s reasoning. No sort of omniscient narrator ever appears, and Kendra never hides anything from the readers.
Overall, there aren’t as many places to go wrong if you reveal info to your characters and readers at the same time. It’s a tried and true method that makes it easier for us writers to keep track of who knows what, and when. Your readers will be less likely to feel frustrated or confused by what’s happening in your story. Plus, if you fully immerse the reader in the mind of your protagonist, they’re going to feel more connected to your characters.
Whatever method you decide to use for your book, make sure to enjoy the writing process. If you love it, your readers will, too.
Fun fact: I got to meet Brandon Mull at the Texas Book Festival when I was 10!