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Monday, September 4, 2017

Hiding What the Main Character Knows from the Reader

I recently got a question from a follower about how to write a story where a very valuable piece of information about the protagonist is kept hidden from the reader until much later in the story, probably at the climax for a nice twist or reveal.

Surprisingly this sort of question comes up somewhat often (especially by new writers), which is why I decided to talk about it in its own post (and in order to do that, this post will be quite long). The writer may want to write a murder mystery where it turns out that the protagonist is the murderer. Or perhaps they go through the whole story believing that the protagonist is human, but then at the end, it's revealed he's another creature pertinent to the story. Or maybe at the end, it's revealed that he's actually dead.

I love those sorts of reveals. Some of my all-time favorite shows use them.

But they are extremely difficult, if not impossible to do in a written story.

In fact, many writers will tell you that they can't be done at all. In reading, the audience gets very close to the main character. Because we almost always are experiencing the story from their viewpoint, it's like we put on their mind and body. We are connected to their senses--what they see, smell, taste, touch, hear--because good writing (almost always) must appeal to the senses powerfully. Furthermore, if your protagonist is intentionally leaving something important out from the reader, the reader usually notices and feel cheated--like he's being played. Another problem is that it keeps the reader from identifying closely and bonding with the protagonist--another element usually needed to write a good story.

I, myself, have spent a good amount of time thinking about this question, as I've had it before too, have heard others ask it enough, and have witnessed other professionals address it.

Can you hide something important about your protagonist from the audience?

Many people will tell you that you cannot. You cannot do that and write a successful story. You cannot have your cake and eat it too.

Of course, I'm skeptical whenever someone in the writing world says something can never be done. "You can't teach writing." "Writers are born, and if you don't have IT, you can't become one." "You can't write anything that hasn't already been thought of." "You can't use passive voice." "You can't use alternative dialogue tags." "You can't use to-be verbs." "You can't use adverbs." "You can't apply point of view penetration to first-person." "You can't learn how to write humor."

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Those who say something can't be done, don't know how to do it.

And the moment we believe something can't be done, we put a ceiling and a limitation on ourselves and the writing world at large.

Can you write a book where the protagonist keeps something important from the audience until much later? Yes.

Do people know how to do it successfully AND how to teach others to do it successfully?

No one that I know of.

But that doesn't mean it can't be done.

I'm going to take a stab on some of my own theories on the subject that I've been developing, but keep in mind, this is an ongoing thing I haven't completely nailed down yet. Here are some ways to deal with this, but first I'll address the answer I usually hear.

Easy Out: Change Your Viewpoint Character (But it Changes the Story)

Often when I hear this question posed, I hear professional writers answer by having the person consider changing who their main character or viewpoint character is.

This doesn't tell you how to hide important info from the audience, but it does give you an alternative that is much easier to deal with.

Instead of writing about a main character keeping a secret, you can write about someone else who knows the person and then have them discover the secret. This probably means changing who your protagonist is to the character's friend, neighbor, love interest, coworker, or whatever.

However, sometimes you can simply change the viewpoint character. As I've mention before, the protagonist is not necessarily the viewpoint character, thought almost always they are the same person. Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous example of this. Watson is the viewpoint characters. Holmes is the protagonist.

By changing your viewpoint character, you maneuver your way out of this problem.

Keep What's Hidden Away From the Main Focus and/or Main Plot

If you are trying to keep something hidden from the audiences, and that something is very relevant to the main plot or focus of the story, most likely your audience is going to notice and be annoyed. This is one of the most common problems I see with new writers trying to include a mystery. In the structure of their sentences and scene, they focus on what's being withheld, or the fact that something is being withheld. For example, there might be a whole paragraph about dads, with the protagonist thinking about her dad, and a sentence like "She never wanted to remember what her dad had done to her 15 years ago."

Now, the sentence itself might actually work in a different structure, but the problem is, since we spent a whole paragraph talking about dads and her dad, dads became the main focus of the story, so when information about what Dad did 15 years ago is withheld, it's annoying and noticeable.

 I talked about this in my post Please Don't Write this Sentence in Your Opening:

One of the problems . . . is that you are drawing attention to the fact that you are withholding important, possibly traumatic, information about your protagonist, and alerting to the reader that "Hey, this is going to be an important backstory that's kind of mysterious and I'm going to tell you about it later."

It feels a lot less mysterious when the writer is advertising the mystery.

The best mysteries are ones where the audience is a participator. And the audience notices themselves that there is something off, or strange, or mysterious in what is going on, not when the narrator advertises it to them.

This can be a problem with just about any mystery, but it tends to be an even more common problem if the protagonist is the one not divulging information.

To pull this sort of thing off, you need to make sure that whatever the protagonist is hiding is not the main focus of the story--that it stays on the sidelines until the perfect moment. It doesn't mean that the info isn't pertinent to the main plot. It's just that when the main focus is something else, this information can be passed over.

I recently edited a story where the writer handled this masterfully in the opening chapter. In fact, it was jaw-dropping. The protagonist manages to keep important information from the reader--and the reader even becomes aware that this is happening--for the whole first chapter, but to be honest, if the story was structured differently, it could have been kept from us until the climax.

How did this person do it? By making something else the focus of the story. And better yet, making something happening in the here and now that demands immediate attention, that demands focus. We notice we are missing important information, or that something is off, but the task at hand is so much more important and demands present action.

For example, say that your main character is a dragon, but the kind that can have a human form (if you've seen those in stories.) It can manifest itself and live as a human, but is really a dragon in disguise. Say we want to keep the fact the protagonist is a dragon hidden until later. The first chapter opens up with a fire in a building, and the protagonist is involved, maybe as a firefighter (beautiful irony to play with there and opportunity for character complexity and depth) or as a passing citizen, or a renter of the an apartment in the building. Maybe he is trying to rescue a child he knows personally trapped on an upper floor.

This is a set-up that demands present action--it demands the story's main focus.

So, we have this protagonist focused on trying to save this child--that's the surface of the story. However, in the process, because the protagonist is our viewpoint character, we notice that in passing he thinks a few unusual things about fire. Nothing way out there or that gives his true nature away, just something slightly unique or off. Maybe he thinks about a personal relationship he has with fire, but doesn't go on to explain what.

It's very important these thoughts are not bunched together. None of them make a full paragraph length. They are very brief and spread apart, sprinkled in here and there. When they are long and bunched together, they became a main focus, which we don't want.

Now, how you word those thoughts depends on what kind of effect you are going for. As I mentioned in my post The Mechanics of Rendering Mysteries and Undercurrent, you can have a conscious mystery, a subconscious mystery, or a full undercurrent ("I didn't see that coming"). If you want a conscious mystery, you make the fact that those thoughts seem slightly off, a tad more obvious. If you want a subconscious mystery, you make it less. If you want it as a full undercurrent, you word those thoughts in a way that gives them a double meaning--they make sense in the moment, but they'll have a double meaning and make more sense when we have the context that he is a dragon.

So in this dragon story, the fact he is a dragon may be pertinent, but it doesn't become a main focus until near the time you reveal he's actually a dragon. Then, if you want, you can let it become the main focus--having longer dragon-related thoughts, having more of those thoughts closer together. Or you can just reveal it and let those pieces fall in place in the reader's mind. Depends on your own story and how it's handled up to that point.

Make it Unimportant to the Story at Hand

This may seem similar to the last section, but it's different. See, in our dragon example, our protagonist was working with fire, so for a dragon, that's directly relevant to what we are hiding from the audience.

In this method, what is kept hidden does not seem relevant to the main story hardly at all. Therefore, the protagonist never naturally brings it up, or if she does (indirectly), it doesn't seem connected at all to what is happening in the story.

The reality is, we can't tell our readers every-thing about our protagonist--it's just not relevant to the story. For example, I don't know exactly what Harry Potter's 6th birthday was like, I don't know what Frodo's favorite color is, and I don't if Katniss aced a language arts exam in school. And I don't need to know, because it's not important.

So in this method, the information that the protagonist keeps hidden is simply kept hidden because it seemed irrelevant.

In college, I got this idea for a middle grade fantasy story I wanted to write, that played with the "Chosen One" trope. In it, a young boy is collected by a magical guardian and taken to a fantasy world, where in the story, it's revealed he's the "Chosen One." However, in that pivotal moment in the climax where the Chosen One does his amazing thing, it doesn't work. The guardian and another mentor character can't figure out why it's not working--they are retracing their steps and thought processes. They are saying it doesn't make sense because the protagonist is part of this special bloodline, and they tracked down his parents to find him, and so it should all work.

The protagonist reveals he's adopted.

The other two characters are shocked. Since he's not of that bloodline, he's not the Chosen One.

Then the next installment would include them trying to find out if his parents had any other unknown children, and the protagonist (still deeply involved in other ways) would be looking for the real Chosen One.

So, the fact he is adopted is kept hidden through the whole story. The protagonist knew the whole time he was adopted, he just didn't bring it up because he didn't think it was relevant.

That's another way you can handle this sort of thing you can try.

Mess with Your Character's Memory

I know some people read that section heading and probably groaned, because they've seen this handled in poor ways or in cliche ways. But just keep reading. You'll learn something new probably.

Many a new writer will deal with this sort of thing by starting with a character who has some form of amnesia--she doesn't remember who she is, where she is, or what she did. Therefore, the reader can't know either. So as the protagonist works on getting this information, the audience is also part of the mystery. This opening is used so much, that people automatically think it's bad or disregard it. But the reality is, the concept can be handled in many ways, and you can deal with your character's memory in other ways than just amnesia.

One of the reasons this technique gets groaned at is because of the way it's often introduced in a story's opening. But it's entirely possible to start a story years after your character got his amnesia, have him established in a new life with new conflicts and focused on other things. You can reveal he has minor amnesia much later, maybe even in passing. You don't make the fact he has amnesia the central focus of the story, but keep it on the sidelines. A 90's show I grew up on Trigun, does this sort of thing (in addition to the first technique I outlined). We don't know until several episodes in that the protagonist doesn't remember anything that happened during an important event. To top it off, he's a character who struggles with facing legitimate problems directly, so he doesn't necessarily want to go digging to find out what happened. He just wants to live a new and obscure life.

But you can do more than play with legit amnesia. You can play with false memories, blocked memories, or inaccurate memories. The character may truly know these things, but she just doesn't remember them very well or very much or in the same way. And let's be honest, amnesia is a bit of an indirect way of answering this question--because you aren't hiding what the protagonist knows, but what the protagonist had known at some point.

So let's get to some of the other options. Season four of Sherlock is a good example of the alternatives. If you haven't watched it yet, skip the next paragraph.

Throughout the whole show, there have been references to Redbeard and also references to an East Wind.  Redbeard was a dog Sherlock had as a child, and East Wind is from a story Mycroft used to tell him. However, in season four, we discover that Redbeard wasn't actually a dog at all, but a pretend pirate name for Sherlock's best friend. And East Wind isn't the name of a destructive wind that destroys everything in its path, but what the name "Eurus" means, and Eurus is Sherlock's forgotten sister. And because of the tragic things that happened with these people, Sherlock developed inaccurate and false memories (with Mycroft's help of course; he worked to reprogram Sherlock's memories). So it's not so much that Sherlock has amnesia, it's just that his memories are wrong. He knows about Redbeard and the East Wind, but the way he remembers them is incorrect.

In the short story "The Armor Embrace" by Doug C. Souza, the protagonist is wired into a mech suit, and runs off from his military operation to see his daughter. This is so important to him, to see his daughter. But at the end of the story, we realize he isn't who we thinks he is. His memory has been captured or stored in the mech's computer, and the real him is actually dead.

So you can mess around with memories too, just be careful of not being too cliche.

Context Shifts

Similarly, you can also have a character who knows information pertaining to the big reveal, but just not in the right context.

In the short story "A Glamour in Black" by Sylvia Ann Hiven, the main character had to have a parasite put into her back years ago, in order to save her life. It's a parasite that gives her magical abilities. Her hope is to one day have enough money to safely have the parasite taken out again. However, after a few great plot twists and the parasite gets taken out, what our viewpoint character can see, hear, and experience (or the lack thereof) totally changes--it turns out, she was the parasite, and similar to "The Armor Embrace," she (or the real soul of the body) actually died in her accident, and the parasite has just been living in her body, having reanimated it.

While this example does relate to what I touched on in the last section, I'm convinced it can be pulled off on its own--the shift in context. The information itself the character knows and is a part of, but then something happens that puts it in a new perspective or context he didn't realize before.

For another example, I just finished a show that dealt with time travel and parallel worlds. The main character has the ability to detect when the timeline (a.k.a. world line) he's in shifts. He experienced it when ten years old, but he didn't have the context for what it was until he saw it through a certain perspective.

Now, in that example, the character experiences the context shift himself, but you could also do a context shift that only involves the reader, so that the viewpoint character always had the right context, but the reader didn't. This can overlap or relate with the next section in some ways.

The viewpoint character does not think she is hiding anything from the reader, isn't trying to hide anything intentionally (though maybe she is subconsciously), but information is relayed in a way that gives the reader inaccurate context, and therefore a slightly inaccurate conclusion or understanding about it.

Then, when the true context/info is revealed, it's not that the reader feels like it was fully hidden from him, but rather that he had misunderstood its meaning.

Finally, you can also play with context (or the lack thereof) in teasers. Usually this is done in a prologue, which I know people in the writing world hate, but I actually like them, and you can find them all over the bookshelves in stores today. Teasers work by giving us glimpses or flashes or snippets (for books, this is almost always a single scene, because it's much harder to do multiple scenes like this in the written word as opposed to visual storytelling), that make us feel a certain way or that make promises to us.

The thing that is always true about teasers though, is that they don't give us the full context. That's why they are teasers. We have to read the rest of the story or watch the movie to get the context of what we saw in it. It's possible to do a teaser that has the hidden information, but lacks the context for us to understand it. Then when we read the whole story, we can go back and realize we did have the information, or part of it, but we just didn't know what we were looking at.

In these cases, it's the context that's kept most hidden. When we finally have the full context for the content, we get the true meaning, the true information that was hidden.

Have the Viewpoint Character Think and Speak as If the Audience Already Knows the Secret

Another way to try to pull this off, is to have the story written in a way that the narrator has assumed that the reader already knows what's hidden. The novel I recently edited and mentioned earlier did this sort of thing. The viewpoint character kept bringing up something that happened in a fire, but never told us what exactly. But she referenced it and talked about it like it didn't need explaining.

Now, this is one of those approaches that can blow up in your face if you don't remember to present the clues as info or in passing, instead of something you are dangling in front of the reader, like a carrot on a stick. The way it's written should not try to draw attention to it. The writer just lets it be because it already naturally draws attention because it brings to mind questions, in the reader. It's just stated and the story moves on.

This sort of thing is done sometimes with what I'll call "Big Narrators"--these are the sorts of narrators that are loaded with personality. Lemony Snicket is a perfect example. Throughout the Series of Unfortunate Events, he makes reference to things that happened in the past with VFD, but not necessarily in a way that explains them, rather he talks as though the reader already knows about them, such as his references to the sugar bowl and the incident with it. Now, the series ended up shaping into something else, but if the writer had wanted to, the incident with the sugar bowl could have been a huge revelation pertinent to the plot.

You don't need to have a "Big Narrator" or colorful narrator to do this though. If you're clever, you can get away with it with a typical viewpoint character.

Use an Unreliable Narrator

If your narrator or viewpoint character is intentionally leaving things out from the reader, you're probably working with an unreliable narrator. These guys can be tricky sometimes, but if this hidden information is going to be really important to the story, you almost always want to establish that the narrator is unreliable from early on.

This is done by using subtext. It can be really hard and tricky, but the idea is to word things, and present ideas and conclusions that don't quite add up, or that seem a bit off to the reader. One thing I'd recommend if trying to craft an unreliable narrator is to get Ackerman and Puglisi's Emotion Thesaurus, which not only talks about how emotions are manifested, but also how suppressed emotions are manifested. Which is often essentially what you are dealing with. Your narrator is suppressing thoughts and emotions from the reader.

For this sort of set-up, this often means, that the narrator is suggesting (maybe subtly, maybe more strongly (but almost never heavy-handedly)) that the reader come to certain conclusions about things--what the narrator wants others/the audience to think about him or her and the events.

But again, there are some things that seem off or that don't quite add up to the reader, or maybe the reader picks up on the suppressed emotions.

Ready for it to get trickier?

The goal is to make the reader aware that the viewpoint character is somewhat unreliable, without giving away from the beginning exactly what the character is hiding. You can't have the audience be blindsided, having trusted the viewpoint character, and then feeling cheated they didn't know about this info, but you can't have it so obvious that they figure out the info long before the reveal.

Whew, no wonder this is so difficult.

Now, if the information is more in the background, and other things on the surface of the story demand present attention, then you can be vague.

But if the hidden information is more relevant to the story and what's at hand and close to the focus of the story, you need to be ambiguous--giving the reader multiple ways to interpret what's going on, until the reveal.

Have Readers Come to the Wrong Conclusion

This one relates both to context shifts and unreliable narrators in particular, and many other things as well, but I put it in its own category so that you can visualize it as its own thing, instead of one that must be attached to a specific method.

To do this method, you must have the clues and hints about the hidden information, but delve them out in the story in a way that leads the reader to misunderstand or misinterpret it and come to the wrong conclusion.

This is a significant method to include, because it's sometimes very much the route a certain story needs to take. Rather than have your audience wondering and wondering and wondering through a whole story, you let them come to a conclusion, and get a level of false closure, thinking they understand and have figured it out, when actually they don't.

When the true info and understanding is revealed, it still fits the clues and hints, but in a somewhat unforeseen way.

Closing Thoughts

Whew, that's a lot to think about and consider, and like I said, these are my thoughts and theories in progress. Regardless of them, I'm sure there are many people who will say that these things and methods are "cheating."

I loved in a podcast of Writing Excuses, where Brandon Sanderson admits to keeping information his viewpoint character, Kelsier, knows from the audience in his novel Mistborn, and says "I cheated."

What struck me in particular about this, is that Brandon Sanderson was aware that he'd done something other people considered "cheating," but he chose to do it anyway because he wanted to.

I'm going to do a post on that sort of thing someday in the future. In some cases, the pros of cheating just outweigh the cons, ultimately making a better story, if still an imperfect one.

And all in all, the reader's experience should take precedence over writers' "rules."

So can you write a story where something the main character knows is kept from the reader? Yes!

Can it be done well? Yes!

Does that mean it's easy? Definitely not.

This is super advanced craft and takes a lot of talent to pull off well. But let's stop teaching people it can't be done, so that we can actually get some great writers in the world who can do it.


  1. I enjoyed reading this article. It tackled many difficult issues in a clear and specific lesson. Well done.

  2. You should try reading Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro is really good at tricking the reader.

  3. So it's been a couple of years since you wrote this and I was wondering if you had further thoughts on techniques?

    I'm in the process of writing multiple POV characters with their own secrets and one of them is a really nasty person. I'm hoping to ise the "who is the nasty" to hide the other secrets, as the interconnected "everything" comes out in the climax.

    1. It has indeed been a few years. Looking over this again, I don't know that I have any new techniques to add, so much as I've come to appreciate and understand these techniques more deeply.

      Sounds tricky. So the idea is to have the audience focused on wondering who is the real nasty person, while other secrets are going on underneath? Am I understanding that right?


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