Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Playing Fair With Readers

Anyone remember a TV programme called Through the Keyhole? The presenter wandered through some celebrity's house pointing out things like books or souvenirs and a panel back in the studio had to guess who lived in a house like that. One of the catch phrases was 'the clues are there.'

There is an unspoken agreement between an author and his/her readers that the author will play fair with them and give them the clues they need. This means that, should the main character be in a pickle and the only thing that will get them out of the situation is that they have all the skills of a judo black belt, the author will not suddenly reveal that the character actually won an Olympic Bronze medal in - yes! - judo.

Similarly, they will not suddenly win the lottery/inherit a fortune in the last chapter which solves all their money problems, or the detective suddenly reveal that Mr Bloggs is the murderer, if this is the first time Mr Bloggs has made an appearance in the entire story.

Nor will a view point character know information which they hide from the reader, despite the reader being led to believe they know the view point character's thoughts. Agatha Christie notoriously did this in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and her readership felt both shocked and cheated.

That's not to say that an author can't lead the reader down the wrong path - in fact, half the fun of reading crime fiction is guessing (wrongly) the solution. But it has to be possible for the reader to make a correct guess. Anything else is cheating. Ditto, in romance fiction, for the heroine to suddenly declare undying love for some bloke who hasn't featured on their radar before. I've been re-reading Pride and Prejudice and one of the pleasures is watching Lizzie realise her true feelings about Darcy, long before she acknowledges them to others let alone herself.

As the presenter said in the programme, 'the clues are there.' If they're not, you're cheating the reader.

4 comments:

LizB said...

Completely agree with this, Sarah. Almost better to have the reader guess too early whodunnit than leave them fuming at the end because they couldn't possibly have known.

Kathryn Price said...

Great post. I would add that the opposite also applies: if you give the reader information that seems to be important, you can't then abandon it, let the thread tail off, or pretend it never existed. The old saying is that if there's a gun on stage in the first act, then by the third act someone should have fired it. Again, it's all about playing fair...

Louise said...

I agree with this. But it can be tricky to be subtle with the clues. I don't want to bash readers over the head with them at the same time I don't want the clues to go unnoticed. I do love dropping clues though, one of the best parts of writing.

Sarah Duncan said...

Liz - yes, much better to guess correctly early than be disappointed. The satisfaction!

Kathryn - I was going to start with that quote, but got confused by how to spell Chekhov and gave up...

Louise - I agree, it can be hard to get the balance right between subtlety and writing the bleedin' obvious.