An Inside Look at Revision: Who Knows What = Conflict

Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation is available on Amazon and Smashwords. I posted notes about the process of revision for every chapter.

Tabitha Ann Holton
Possible Aubrey

Chapter 5:

What characters don't know creates tension.

My favorite example of a character's lack of knowledge creating tension occurs in C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner. The writer's knowledge of events, the plot, goes as follows: humans and Atevi maintain a tentative peace on the Atevi planet; the human spaceship returns to orbit; the Atevi are naturally worried over the implications and kidnap the human ambassador to extract information.

This series of events is relayed, out of order, from the point of view of the human ambassador (paidhi), Bren Cameron, who is kidnapped before he receives news of the ship's return. His lack of knowledge isn't contrived. It's very plausible and creates internal and external conflict. In other words, the writer's plot is actually told sideways--this makes it story. I admire Cherryh tremendously. This type of storytelling is extremely difficult to pull off gracefully; she does.
As a writer, remembering that a character doesn't know what the writer knows can be tricky; a failure to keep a character's limitations in mind explains the inexplicable behavior of characters in television shows. One week, the characters are suspicious of a new person; the next week, everybody loves the new person. The difference: the previous week, the new person was the conflict; this week, the new person isn't the conflict.

But how would the characters know?

Old Police Station (Built 1879) 
Alexander P. Kapp
In general, if one is speaking of Star Trek, it would make more sense if the crew followed the same security protocols for everyone. Otherwise, the viewer is left thinking, "Wow--look how suddenly prescient everybody is!"

It comes down to Point of View Rule 101: Just because I, the writer, know who should be trusted, that doesn't mean my character does.

Chapter 5 details Aubrey's second day with the police. This encounter occurred in every version in some form. Reminding myself that Aubrey doesn't know whether or not to trust the police helped create tension (and explicate Aubrey's decision at the end of the chapter).


a calvinist preacher... said...

This really isn't a comment just on this post, but on your writing here in general.

Your writing, to include the topics you select, makes me think in ways I do not naturally think. This post does so as do many of your other posts, so it provides the occasion for me to make note of it.

I don't know that I've ever thanked you for that, but now's as good a time as any. Thanks.

Kate Woodbury said...

You’re welcome! The fun of the blog is sending my thoughts out into the void. Who knows where they go? Yet it is nice to know those thoughts are received—and contemplated :)