All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. -Ernest Hemingway
Sorry Hemingway, but in genre fiction, the writer’s gotta lie. Or, at least fill the hero’s mouth with lies.
Let’s deconstruct how Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight build conflict by withholding information.
1. The hero needs assistance, but he can’t quite ask for it.
Everything would be a lot easier if the hero could just ask for help when he needed it. Unfortunately for the hero, a story is a series of obstacles! In Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight, an external force keeps the hero from getting the assistance he needs.
- Harry Potter needs help from Dumbledore to protect the Sorcerer’s Stone. When he tries to tell Prof. McGonagall that someone is going to steal it, she shuts him down. “‘But Professor —’ ‘Potter, I know what I’m talking about,’ she said shortly.” (HP Ch.16).
- Katniss needs help from the audience, but she can’t tell Peeta that each act of romance equals one gift from the sponsors. “To say my thoughts aloud would be tipping off the audience that the romance has been fabricated to play on their sympathies and that would result in no food at all.” (HG Ch.22).
- Bella can’t fight the evil vampire James alone, but she can’t ask her friends for help because he has threatened her mother. “It’s important, now, that you don’t make your friends suspicious when you go back to them. Tell them that your mother called, and . . . repeat after me . . .” (TW Ch.21).
2. The hero can’t explain what he means because he has to protect someone.
Each hero has a true story to tell, but that’s not always the best idea. In order to protect the people around him, the hero must lie or stay silent (which can come off as manipulative). The inner turmoil of this decision adds depth to the hero’s character.
- Harry Potter and his friends are caught out of bed even though Neville tried his best to warn them. Professor McGonagall thinks that Harry tricked Neville, and Harry can’t set the record straight without throwing his other friends under the bus. “Harry caught Neville’s eye and tried to tell him without words that this wasn’t true, because Neville was looking stunned and hurt.” (HP Ch.15).
- Katniss wants to open up to Peeta (which is hard for her), but she can’t tell him a real story about her life in District 12 without getting others in trouble. “And while people have no doubt put two and two together that I hunt illegally, I don’t want to hurt Gale or Greasy Sae or the butcher . . . by publicly announcing they’re breaking the law, too.” (HG Ch.20).
- Bella can’t explain to her dad that as long as she is in the house, he is in danger of a vampire attack. To get out quickly, she lies by using the same words that her mother used when she left him. “But I had no time, and I had to keep him safe. I glared up at my father, fresh tears in my eyes for what I was about to do.” (TW Ch.19).
Why it Works
Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight are filled with conflict: conflict within the hero’s own personality, between the hero and other characters, and from external forces. These conflicts are magnified when the hero withholds information– whether he wants to or not.
If all communication was clear and open, the journey would be too easy. But, the reader won’t buy it if the hero constantly makes dumb decisions: There must be a legit reason that the hero doesn’t ask for help or chooses not to share.
Throw in some adverse stakes– in today’s examples we see a stubborn and dismissive grown-up, as well as the threat of harm to a loved one.
Tell me what you think: is withholding information effective in storytelling or gimmicky?