There are many aspects about writing that can be difficult, to the point that we writers often summarize it as simply, “Writing is hard.”* Each writer has their own list of aspects that they struggle with most. For some, dialogue is the hardest; for others, it’s description or plot or characters. For many, it’s pacing. Some of these are advanced problems. Only when you have the basics down can you start worrying about some of these other issues.
But I do find that one of the hardest aspects is choosing what information to reveal in a story and when. This relates to pacing but is also its own facet of storytelling. And it’s tough because the writer knows every detail. Often we spend weeks or months or even years plotting out a storyline, fleshing out characters and every bit of their background and personality, creating worlds or universes, new languages, or entire species. We want to show off all that effort, make sure it was worthwhile. When writing a first draft, it’s easy to include way too much information, to over-explain everything, to draw all the conclusions for the reader. In fact, that’s not a bad way to approach a first draft—if you’ve laid out all the details, it’s easier during editing to tell which ones can be left out without setting the reader adrift.
A trickier task, however, is choosing when to reveal necessary details—and when to conceal them. There is no hard and fast rule for this; I do find that stories tend to work best (from both a reader’s and a writer’s perspective) when almost all major specific details are concealed in the beginning. Hints, but not outright explanations, are one of the best ways to build tension in the reader and in the story. No one ever embarked on any journey knowing in the beginning exactly how it would turn out and every step in between. And what are stories if not journeys?
Think about some of your favorite novels or short stories. What about the story kept you reading? I’m sure there were hints—foreshadowing—of what was to come, but did you know from page 1 what the conclusion would be (if you did, I’m curious to know what compelled you to continue reading)?** Odds are most your favorite stories have some big and perhaps completely unexpected reveal or twist at the climax. And if you’ve read those stories more than once, you probably noticed on subsequent readings that some details that didn’t stick out the first time were actually clever hints the author had left as breadcrumbs.
It’s easy as a reader to sit back and enjoy the ride of a story, and like a good roller coaster it’s often just as fun the second or third time. But as a writer, deciding where to place the breadcrumbs or when to reveal crucial details is one of the hardest parts of storytelling—and one that ends up being almost invisible to readers when it’s successful.
How and where a major detail is revealed can change the whole tone of a story, can affect the plot or how the characters will react to something or interact with each other. And of course it will change how a reader engages with the story, how they feel about the plot and characters, how they interpret previous and subsequent information. It’s a lot to consider and balance, and this is after a writer has already decided which details to omit entirely.
Personally, I’m a big fan of leaving non-crucial bits up to the reader’s imagination. I don’t like to describe settings or characters in exhaustive detail—by allowing readers to use their imagination, the story becomes theirs. Sometimes I’ll decide to make a crucial detail vague or imply something in one place and the opposite in another. It’s not always successful; some readers will get frustrated if there are no definitive conclusions (or if there are multiple possible conclusions). As with most things, what works for one person won’t work for another.
The best way to figure out when to conceal or hint at something important and when to reveal it is to experiment. It will vary from story to story. So try it different ways, have many people read the variations, and gauge their reactions. It might take longer to finish the story that way, but when you have the final draft, you’ll be telling the exact story you want with the perfect twists and details.
*Not the hardest task in the world, certainly. But we writers do tend to be dramatic at times (myself included).
**Sometimes a writer will utilize a reverse approach and open with the conclusion, then work backward to how it all began. But it’s rare, and also a hard technique to successfully execute.