When should information be revealed? How much? How soon?
I have in my head an image of a man bending over a prostrate body of a woman. The man is wearing a mask and carrying a knife. The woman is bleeding, unconscious. Undeterred, the man plunges the knife into her flesh…
Can you picture the scene? What are you thinking? What is happening here? Have you understood that the man is a criminal, the woman his victim?
Imagine a story that begins this way.
Now imagine that as you continue reading, further details are revealed. It slowly becomes apparent that in fact, the man is not a criminal, but a surgeon. The mask is a surgical one. The knife is not a weapon but a scalpel. The man is not a murderer killing an innocent woman. He is a heroic doctor saving a life.
This is an example of withholding information as a plot device – the writer playing with, and deliberately misleading, the reader.
More commonly, information is withheld to create suspense or maintain tension. In a Whodunit, for instance, you won’t find out who ‘done’ it till the very end.
However, certain information should be given upfront; it forms part of the set-up. This includes all aspects of characterisation. (For a review of the difference between character and characterisation, see an earlier post.)
If your character has a stutter, a limp, wears glasses or is bald, this information should be given as soon as the character is introduced. It won’t do to let the reader know halfway through the novel that the protagonist has black hair. If you want to provide this information, do it before the reader has begun to picture him as a blond or a redhead.
Don’t wait till page 200 to tell the reader that your hero has blue eyes (unless it’s a plot device and you were deliberately misleading the reader into thinking he had brown ones when in fact he was wearing contact lenses all this time…)
Likewise, if you tell the reader in Chapter 2 that the protagonist has a sister called Mary and a brother called Jo, don’t wait till Chapter 6 to mention Alex (that is, unless you have a specific reason for doing so), since the reader will assume a three-sibling family.
In short, check your timing. Always be conscious of how much information you provide, when, and why.