Backward Writing – Withholding Critical Information

by Anita Stratos, Proof Positive Editor

In psychology, when a person withholds affection from their partner, it’s considered a form of emotional abuse. In writing, withholding important information from the reader could almost be classified as story suicide.

I’m not talking about flashbacks here, I’m talking about important elements that should be part of readers’ information base.

Springing certain surprises on readers can be a great tool and can generate that sought-after “I never saw it coming” response from readers that’s both exciting and exhilarating.

But if you hold that coveted hole card too long or if the information you’re withholding shouldn’t be a secret at all, it can have the opposite effect and make readers angry or confused.

That’s because certain pieces of information can change readers’ perspectives on the character or situation, change their expectations of the character’s behavior in a way that the new information makes everything seem suddenly out of character, or makes them rethink the character they thought they knew.

None of these distractions are good.

Let’s take a peek into a couple of small, overly condensed scenes about Sonya’s job relocation and how it put a devastating strain on her family.

Page 56:

The move couldn’t have come at a worse time – it was February.

“But Mom,” Ellen complained, “first you make us lose all our friends and move to a new state for your job, and now you’re sticking me in a new school after everyone’s already got their friends. They’ll treat me like a freak! I’ll never make new friends!”

Sonya’s husband chimed in with complaints of his own. “And I was just about to get reassigned to the most lucrative region in the state. I put ten years of hell into that company just waiting for a shot at this assignment!”

With her father’s apparent support, Ellen went for the jugular. “Whatever happened to your old guilt line, ‘family comes first’? How come your job comes before your family when it suits you?”

Fast forward to page 89:

It wasn’t bad enough that their luggage had been lost by the airline, but the moving truck had suddenly disappeared with all of their household belongings as well. Sonya was beginning to think that the “universe” was sending her a very disapproving message about forcing her family to uproot themselves and their lives for her own personal gain.

And now Ellen’s mystery symptoms were showing up worse than ever, probably from the stress of the move. Her body was covered in rashes, she was constantly fatigued, and see seemed to be allergic to everything. This had happened on and off throughout her twelve years of life, and she had used this as part of her argument to not to move. “What if my problems get worse? How can I meet new kids looking like a blotchy mess? I don’t even have a doctor out there,” she’d said. Her current doctor had also suggested that Sonya factor Ellen’s undiagnosed ailment into her decision, since he had recently started a series of tests in an effort to figure out what was happening. Since birth, Ellen had been plagued by mystery symptoms, and Dr. Ellingworth was the first one who had ever tried to figure out the cause rather than just treating the symptoms with prescription creams and pills.

Wow, that’s a lot of backtracking. The writer not only went back in time to add more to Ellen’s original argument on page 59, but s/he went even further back in Ellen’s life to a time before the story started, which should have been covered early on.

Backward writing like this not only removes readers from the current situation in the story, it also changes their image of Ellen, her day-to-day struggles, and adds another level to Sonya’s selfishness. It’s like plunging readers into ice water from the comfortable warmth of a flowing storyline, then expecting them to jump back into the pool without so much as a transitional shower.

So when you’re editing your first draft, be mindful of the order in which you tell your story, know the difference between well-placed, well-orchestrated flashbacks and backward writing, and use surprises wisely. Your novel – and your readers – will thank you.

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