The trick is not easy. But it’s easily understood.
How do you know what to reveal when?
Writers who know that, and can do it consistently, are unstoppable.
And one of the earliest ways we do this is simply getting into the scene.
Feel the emotions and desires of your characters and the weight of the situation. And watch when certain connections and meaningful things begin popping out.
Maybe the best way to notice and feel what’s most important in your story is to ensure there’s some good intensity in the scene. Write scenes that involve “high stakes”–i.e. lots riding on what’s happening for the characters. If there’s not enough at stake, you won’t feel it and you won’t know what really matters.
And neither will your readers.
If what to reveal when is our best goal, then really feeling the do-or-die stakes you’ve built (and augmented and rebuilt and fortified!) into your story is job one.
Job two, as Sol Stein taught me, is getting out of your own way.
Everyone’s got heroes. Mine are all bookish types. Here’s another: Steve Pinker. His new book, The Sense of Style, currently soaring up the bestseller list, defines “the curse of knowledge:”
This, the Harvard professor of psychology says, is the source of bad writing, “the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose.”
Taken as such, it’s easy to see why I’m always saying writers need to pay more attention to their reader.
Readers don’t know half as much as you think they do. So slow down.
You may have already entered the scene and understood the action that will happen. Good for you. But you don’t know the first thing of what should be revealed and concealed because you don’t know what your reader knows.
With very little exception, this will solve a lot of your initial problems. But there’s also a trick to knowing what to withhold from readers. For the most part, you don’t decide what’s important to readers in your scene. So the trick is not merely getting cozier with what readers don’t know, but focusing on both revealing and concealing.
What to say when means this, specifically: revealing the necessary emotions, thoughts and actions that define character and plot, and concealing the secret emotions, desires and actions that create the mystery and drama.
Remember who knows which is which? That’s right: the one who gets in readers’ skin best. Pinker says this is why much advice on writing sounds like moral advice, as if being a good writer will make you a better person. Though there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, certainly working out what your readers think and feel is at least as essential as getting into your characters’ shoes.
Bottom line: if every story is at the heart a mystery and a romance, that drama is fueled by how artfully and slowly you reveal the secrets being kept.
And knowing what is secret to readers, and what’s secret between the characters will guide how you know what to say when.