What the narrator knows; what the reader knows

I had a friend email me with a cool question: How do you let the reader in on something the first person protagonist doesn’t?

I know it’s tricky, and I know it can be done, and I know it’s a rush when you pull it off.  My answer involved set-up: You establish the character as someone who is liable to miss drawing the correct conclusion when certain types of facts are in front of him, then you can have him report on things from which the reader will draw the correct conclusion, but the protagonist won’t.  For example, he might reminisce about a time a certain woman was attracted to him, and talk about the way she communicated it, and then say that he didn’t realize that until much later.  Now you can have his current lover drop clues that she is on the edge of breaking up with him, and the reader will believe that he doesn’t see it.  If you do it well enough, that is: it’s all about walking the line between, on the one hand, making the clues so subtle the reader doesn’t catch on, and, on the other, making the clues so obvious the reader won’t believe the protagonist doesn’t get it.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting question, and worth throwing out to the Smart People who hang out here to see what other answers emerge.

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0 thoughts on “What the narrator knows; what the reader knows”

  1. As the Smart People are yet to comment I’ll say something.

    I thought it would be simply having the protagonist as a not the POV character for some or all of the chapters.

  2. Well, there’s also the question of what kind of first-person narration you have. Do you feel the need to explain when, why, and how your character is telling this story in the first person? I don’t think that kind of framing device is explicitly necessary, but sometimes it’s there, and that’s fine. And when it is there, the difference between what I knew at the time of the story and what I know now that I’m telling you the story can also be exploited. It can also be deeply obnoxious if you do it too much or if you do the overbearing, “If I only had KNOWN THEN,” diction that some stories try to lean on for portentousness, so it’s not as versatile as Things The Narrator Would Miss. It also comes with other dictates for your narrative, so you have to make sure you really want that particular framing device.

  3. If it isn’t critical what the particular thing is, you could perhaps use something people already know. For example, set the story just prior to some well known event.

  4. Sometimes, narration doesn’t work. One of my webcomics is “The Battle For Gobwin Knob”, which is a niche market piece about an overweight gamer that gets sucked into a world that resembles Civilization, Axis and Allies, and a few other war games. Trust me, this is actually important.

    The comic’s first 2 pages are neutral narration, where the creation of the Earth by Titans (which resemble Elvis in his various stages of life) build the world up. Since it is not presented from the perspective of an inhabitant, it is intended to be taken literally.

    Here’s what went wrong: so many people are anti-God that large numbers of readers still treat it as allegory. Transferring their disbelief in God in our world to an artificially created world (where an author decides if the Creator(s) exist or not), they insist that the neutral narration is instead what the inhabitants of this game world believe, not what really happened. they do not seem able to understand the concept that a disbelief in God in our world should never be applied to a work of fiction that is entirely under the control of another human being.


    Tricks that I have seen to achieve Steven’s goal:

    1) The protagonist has a conversation with two third parties, and leaves. The secret info is discussed by the two after he is out of earshot, sometimes not realizing that he didn’t know it and needed it. “You don’t think he doesn’t know that Lord Ugly wears armor that can’t be penetrated except by a sword made of uglium, do you?” “Nah, everyone knows that. It’s common knowledge.”

    2) Protagonist finds a book with a page missing, and the narration reveals the contents to the reader.

    3) Scene of an antagonist discussing the information with a minion. Problem with this is that if it is the only scene with the antagonist, it hangs out like a sore thumb. It forces you to write other such scenes.

    4) Prelude is of a different protagonist trying to perform the same quest failing, but revealing the information to the reader. Rarely, if the antagonist is recurring, it is of the previous hero defeating the antagonist.

    5) Footnote it, but only if your name is Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams.

    6) Our friend Brust did this one more than once. You write your story non-chronologically. (Actually, the whole Taltos series is an example of this.) The parts where the character is forward in time can discuss information the protagonist in a previous time frame hasn’t found yet.

    There are more, but my brain stopped spitting them out.

  5. Even though it gives quite a bit away by placing this book in this context, I think of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier as a master class in handling this issue. When I read this in college, the phrase “wilderness of mirrors” came to mind often.

  6. Dr. Watson came immediately to mind.
    I wish I could remember the name of Philip Jose Farmer’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche, with the old man who was a UFO fan.
    (Tangentially, I recently got a lesson on the power of naming and categorizing when I ran into the observation that Sherlock Holmes was the basis for one of the first great waves of fan-fic . . . )

  7. I’ve never had that problem, as everything I’ve ever written has been done in third person, this sentence excepted.

    You can always fall back on the old reliable time-travel/amnesia tropes. Also, it’s a physical fact that you can’t keep your eyes open when sneezing, so that provides a split second where everyone else can see what is going on, but you miss it.

  8. Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 achieved this by having an adolescent narrator, who could plausibly fail to pick up on clues that an adult would more easily recognize and put together. Thus, the reader could figure out that Adrian’s mother was probably having an affair with one of the neighbors, even though Adrian himself missed it completely.

  9. Could someone recommend a psoitive example of this writing technique so I can go and read it? Or would someone be willing and able to write a short example here? My own writing experience is severely limited to writing for science classes (power point notes, test questions, lab procedures, etc.), and I am not entirely sure what is meant, and would like to learn what it is.

  10. Well, there’s the larger question of what the narrator was interested in at the time, vs what the reader is interested in while reading the story.

    For example, suppose the narrator is more interested in clothes and brand names etc than either the heroine or the reader is. If he criticizes the heroine’s wardrobe and makes a lot of suggestions, and she rebuffs them, the narrator may be all focused on the details and miss the sub-text that she is annoyed with him for being too bossy.

    Or if the narrator spends a whole page in details of finding his way around in a confusing building, the reader may suspect that the author is using this to plant details about the building which the narrator will later wish he had paid more attention to. You don’t have to actually SAY “Had I but known” when the amount of detail is otherwise unjustified.

  11. A certain degree of protagonist obtuseness is a useful tool…if all the information necessary to understand what’s going on has to be in the story itself, it’s awfully hard to dispense with.

    Gene Wolfe does a lot with this–it’s a major point of his Latro in the Mists books, where the main character suffers from anterograde amnesia (sorta like in Memento but not quite as severe). There’s also a scene in the Book of the New Sun where the protagonist sees a picture of a moon landing, describing it in a way that makes it clear what it is but at the same time making it clear he doesn’t know what it is.

    Neal Stephenson has a really effective moment with this in his Baroque Cycle where a protagonist fleeing London because of the bubonic plague enters an abandoned house crawling with fleas. To the protagonist (who is, luckily for him, wearing high leather riding boots) the fleas are a very minor nuisance, but my heart rate ticked up a bit at the description of the fleas bouncing off his boots as he goes across the room.

    If you’re writing a story that refers to a famous story (Greek myth, the Arthurian legends, the Bible, etc.) you can often signal to the reader in ways that a first-person protagonist doesn’t pick up (so that one-eyed guy has a couple of pet ravens? Huh, that’s funny).

    In /Doorways in the Sand/ Roger Zelazny does some interesting things with this–basically, the protagonist has dreams described which he then doesn’t remember on waking.

    And you can always cheat by having the title of the story give an important clue (back to Gene Wolfe and “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”).

  12. Joan Hess deals with this in her Maggody books by having three or four POVs in each chapter. Her protagonist is the chief of police in a small town and is the only first person voice in the book. Each chapter will include two or three sections focusing on her regular characters, plus one or more of the people introduced for the current story. She uses figures of speech and accents just enough that each character is clearly identified by the narrative, even if not named, and often the chief will do or say something completely at odds with what we already know, but which conforms to what she has learned.

    It sounds messy, but they are very well-written and enjoyable.

  13. Unfortunately, the only example I can think of is the second book in a trilogy — the reader knows things from having read the first book; the first-person narrator wasn’t there. (The volumes are significantly separated chronologically; v. 2 deals with consequences of things that happened in v. 1, but only a few, functionally immortal, characters overlap..)

  14. Steve, I think you achieved this effect when Vlad

    (spoiler for Issola)

    realizes that a Serioli artifact in conjunction with the soul of a certain courtly Issola could be employed to remove aspects of deity. Vlad is immersed in the minutiae of his existence, injuries, Verra-induced-amnesia, teleporting between worlds and so on, whereas the reader in his armchair is free to draw connections (perhaps cheating by way of A Dream of Passion).

    Would something like having first person protagonists in medieval settings arrive at discoveries known to modern science, perhaps tortuously (and familiar to the average reader, e.g. ferrum in haemoglobin) fit the bill?

    (Reading the comments, I think I’m echoing sealionii’s excellent observations a bit here).

  15. Anything the viewpoint character is clueless about can work. The narrator can say something and then show things that contradict it. Here’s a passage off the top of my head:

    I stood in front of my closet, deciding what to wear. It’s important to give the right feel, and today I wanted to give the impression of cool competence, so I put on the light blue pants, the white shoes, the red shirt, and the green bow-tie, with a gray polyester sports coat over all.

  16. Sometimes an author can give information to the reader without realizing it. There’s an Agatha Christie mystery where the murder hinges on the fact of an illness that often causes major birth defects when caught by a pregnant lady but is minor otherwise—and my mother narrowly escaped that bullet when my older sister was in the minority of babies that get through that unharmed. I know it wasn’t supposed to be obvious to the reader but it screamed at me, even though they didn’t mention the name of the disease right away.

  17. @ Tucker
    Thanks for the recommendation. I just finished reading the story. It was very good. It was very hard to finish though, and I got more than a bit teary-eyed over it. And it did display something that the reader became aware of before the protagonast did. That is what made it so hard to read, knowing what would happen and hoping so hard it wouldn’t, but you know it will and it does.

  18. Hunh, yeah, I completely overlooked the First Person commandment.

    The Chronological method still works, but the rest are useless.

    But I have to wonder if you really want to in a First Person story. Try watching Dark City without the opening narration by Kiefer. It is a much more interesting movie when you follow the lead character and have no idea what’s wrong with the world. The reveal is that much more stunning. (Everyone I’ve shown that movie to has appreciated that, because no one is thinking in that direction.)

    First person increases the connection between reader and protagonist, but by giving the reader knowledge the protagonist doesn’t have, it disconnects that connection. The reveals have less power when the reader already knows it.

    Anyway, yeah, you’re really limited. Disembodied narration, future self revelations, third party narration, and that’s about it. There’s not that many other things in a book that can reveal information in a first person story.

  19. I thought William Faulkner did a good job of this in “As I Lay Dying.” It’s told from multiple first person POVs but each one interprets events differently based on their personality, prejudices, mental states, etc. It’s left to the reader to determine what actually happened and why.

  20. In Huck Finn, to pick maybe the most obvious example, the reader is constantly forced to deal with the contradiction between what Huck sees going on and what he thinks about it.

  21. Kipling’s “Marlake Witches” has several layers of different characters missing the point which the reader gets: that the young narrator is dying of tuberculosis (“consumption”). If the diagnosis weren’t obvious to us readers, we could get it from the reaction of the other characters — which the narrator misinterprets also.

    Looking for the title of this story, I found this essay about other Kipling stories about tubercolosis, in which characters miss that point one way or another.

  22. Agatha Christie does this all the time with Poirot’s sidekick Hastings: he gets all the facts, then jumps to conclusions. You KNOW any conclusion that Hastings jumps to must be wrong, yet she lays down little traps for the other semi-obvious choices, too. A real brat at expectation management.

    Mystery stories have the benefit of reader expectation that all is not as it seems; the readers look for that kind of thing. I think the trick isn’t to build dual truths about what’s going on but to let the reader know that they might, perhaps, be looking for that kind of thing. I look in Steve’s book for that kind of thing now as a matter of course, but I don’t always find it myself (I find out from other readers).

    Right now, I’m only at the point where I build the dual truths and hope for the best: let the story work on level A, and let people who spot a flaw in story A work out story B on their own. How to clue people in that it’s THAT kind of story? No idea.

    –I really do love Gene Wolfe’s ability to misdirect. His main characters know what’s going on, and yet they conceal the truth in ways that are not precisely lies.

  23. Funny people should mention Gene Wolfe. He does do this—for instance, he said in an interview that in The Book of the Long Sun, Blood’s father is Pike, which it seems the narrator doesn’t know—but he may err on the side of being too subtle. Few readers picked that up (certainly not me). And the existence of things like that licenses all kinds of theories, so the Urth list is full of arguments about which narrators are dead and don’t know it.

    A classic example of the mismatched-clothes type is The Diary of a Nobody, by the Grossmith brothers. Another is Pale Fire, by Nabokov. Of course, it’s easy to show that your narrator is insane, but he also provides the same sort of comedy as in The Diary of a Nobody. For instance, Kinbote walks into a room where people are talking about him but accepts their explanation that they’re talking about someone else (at least, that’s how I read it). And is he also missing a ghost story or two that the reader is supposed to notice?

    Speaking of Nabokov, he used a unique method in “The Vane Sisters” (copyright-violating version here, which loaded for me long before it admitted it was done). Despite what might seem like blatant clues, nobody got it, and in his collected short stories he revealed the secret in a foreword. You can see it in various places, such as Wikipedia.

    I think Paarfi does this occasionally, when he seems not to realize how pompous he’s being. When he praises concision at great length, I’m not sure whether the joke is his or the author’s, not that it matters.

    Does Vlad ever do this? Maybe revealing that he doesn’t really hate Dragaerans, especially Dragons, before Noish-pa points it out to him?

    This is a kind of irony, maybe of dramatic irony. Does it have a name of its own? “Narrative irony”?

    And what was the question? How do you do it? If I knew that…

  24. Several people have mentioned Gene Wolfe’s oeuvre in general and some specific works of his. I’ll add Pandora by Holly Hollander and Pirate Freedom as more examples of Wolfe books with unreliable first-person viewpoint characters, though I haven’t read them recently enough to cite specific passages.

    Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock also has an unreliable narrator; his clueless naivete is a main source of the humor. There was discussion about this and other aspects of the story on Making Light in July 2010. Besides the facts that the narrator unconsciously reveals to the reader without realizing them himself (for instance, the fact that one of the other main characters is gay), there are other facts that the narrator offhandedly reveals without emphasizing them, because they aren’t important to him, but to the attentive reader they become important parts of the worldbuilding: things like race that are important for us now have become unimportant by the time of the story.

    I’ll try to sum up the methods noted by earlier posters:

    1. The narrator is clueless because of limited intelligence or intellectual laziness. (Flowers for Algernon, Julian Comstock)

    2. They’re clueless because of ignorance, either because they’re young and inexperienced (many stories with child or teenage narrators), or they are of a lower-tech civilization than ours that lacks scientific knowledge most readers have (not realizing the importance of rats or fleas during a plague, for instance); or they live in our past and don’t have historical perspective on their time that most readers have; or they live in our future, perhaps post-apocalyptic, or high-tech but with a discontinuity and loss of historical knowlege between our time and theirs (e.g. Severian not understanding the moon landing image).

    3. They’re not stupid, just distracted at a particular point in the story, so they don’t notice something that they would notice under better circumstances.

    4. They viewpoint character is reasonably smart, but not as brilliant as the protagonist (e.g. Watson beside Holmes).

    5. They’re outright insane.

    6. They’re amnesiac (the Latro books).

    7. The narrator-at-the-time-of-narration knows things that the narrator-at-the-time-of-the-story didn’t yet know. (Pirate Freedom, Pandora by Holly Hollander, many of the Vlad books).

  25. Pale Fire is indeed a pretty brilliant example of this, and a damn good read as well. Whatever else is going on, it’s clear that there’s a well defined “real” narrative we’re seeing through a distorted lens.

    “Kinbote’s” style reminded me a bit of Paarfi at times, which makes me yearn for a peek at the latter’s critical corpus… :)

  26. I don’t know if anyone has mentioned them yet, as I kind of skimmed previous comments, but The Hunger Games is absolutely full of instances where the reader learns things that the narrator doesn’t. The narrator, a teen, draws the wrong conclusions about things periodically.

  27. Not strictly different from what’s been said already, but to codify:

    (1) Exploit the difference between the perspective of the narrator and the perspective of the reader (i.e. take the protagonist fish out of his water). Time-traveler from 19th century shows up today; mentally damaged (OCD, ADHD, aspie, teenaged) protagonist draws wrong conclusions; adult protagonist finds teens incomprehensible; city boy finds farm incomprehensible; protagonist doesn’t know the title of the book; protagonist doesn’t realize he’s narrating a prequel to a previously-published story; protagonist hasn’t read the website your preface directs the readers to.

    (2) Exploit the difference between the experience and the narration, typically with a framing structure.

    I’ve heard that some authors use short quotes or cut scenes in italics at the beginning of each chapter to provide context the narrator doesn’t have.

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