Manipulating Who Knows What to Create Tension

Who knows more? Your character or your reader?
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I am learning so much from Madeline Dyer’s class on narrative structure. If you write fiction or memoir, this is definitely a class you should consider taking.

Today’s lecture was about non-linear manuscripts. In a linear manuscript, the story is told chronologically. In a non-linear manuscript, it is not. Me? For the most part, my work is linear, but today Madeline made a great case for making it non-linear. There are times, she said (I’m paraphrasing), that you want the character to know more than the reader, and times you want the reader to know more than the character.

It took me several minutes to puzzle out what she meant but finally — AHA! Let’s say that you have a story with 7 scenes. Yes, that’s a small number but you’ll see why I chose seven. One scene happens on each day of the week.

If your story is chronological, the scenes will be presented to the reader in the order that they occur – Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Your reader and your character are equally well informed. Why? Because the reader is taking in the story as the character experiences it.

Now let’s move one of those scenes. Let’s say that the scene that takes place on Thursday is presented first. That means that the order would be Thursday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

As the reader experiences the Thursday scene, they know less than the main character. Why? Because the character has already experiences Sunday through Wednesday. But after the Thursday scene is the Sunday scene. Now the reader knows more than the character.

Let me give you an example. In the Thursday scene, the main character, Brett, is betrayed by his new best friend, Curtis. Next comes the Sunday scene. The betrayal has yet to occur. In the Sunday scene, Brett meets the new student, Curtis, and is excited to have a new classmate who likes so many of the things that he does. “Wait! No!,” says the reader. “It’s an act and he’s going to betray you!” But Brett doesn’t know this so there and this lack of knowledge increases the tension in the story.

Fascinating! I don’t think this is something I can use in my middle grade project but it is definitely something I’m going to look for in my reading. I’m sure I’ll be able to use this technique in a future story.