Hiding information in narrative

Standard disclaimer: This post looks at the text of a short story for educational purposes, and does not shy away from spoilers. If you don’t want the story spoiled. read the original story first.

The Adjuct Professor’s Guide to Life After Death

Sandra McDonald

Asimov’s Science Fiction, October 2015. Available at newstands and online retailers.


One challenge I face in writing first person narrative is hiding information from the reader. Hiding information can help in raising tension, or revealing secrets that explain or expand the meaning behind earlier scenes. This story is written in first person present tense with a smattering of past tense as the narrator, Lea Davis, describes her death.

A central question to this ghost story is “why do ghosts exist?”, and the natural follow-up is “how do they move on?” The idea handed over in the narrative is that ghosts have unfinished business. The opening paragraph states this problem of ghosts, and introduces no characters, no events, no actions, only the idea. It is a small thesis presented by an anonymous narrator. There is a personality to the voice, which is good. This is exactly the sort of opening paragraph I have been told never ever to use as a new writer. If ghosts are a mistake, as the opening states, then this story is somehow going to explain how to correct that mistake.

Lea introduces herself and her situation. Soon, she describes her appearance as she was when she died in her office. She has already revealed that she had been having an affair with the chair of her department, and that the woman who has taken over her office is also having an affair with the same man. Her autopsy report she gives mentions a uterine fibroid. She recounts the details of her death through the eyes of another faculty member: Jim Gardener, the man who
discovered her corpse, and ends the passage with the first careful step in hiding vital information:
The last line is “I didn’t leave a note, but I left behind a picture Jim Gardener will never forget.”

Later, she mentions in passing that she’s a suicide. (There are other ghosts in the story,
all murder victims.)

There is a minor lie to another character, three plastic fish in a tank she kept in her office. She withholds their names from another ghost, and after the tank is smashed, reveals to the reader that she had named them after all.

There is another small bit where Lea says she did more than have an affair, as if there is something else weighing on her. The followup is a justification for not telling that bit to us, because she doesn’t want to share it with the other character (this time because she thinks he wouldn’t want to hear her troubles after the life he lived before college).

Lea also explains that she killed herself not because of her affair, but because of the hopelessness she doesn’t want to face. She also mentions a picture she wanted to show her lover, but he didn’t show up for their planned tryst the night she killed herself.

Later, while dealing with the ghost of the murderer, she tells him “you wanted to take the whole world with you. I only took one other person.” And then moves immediately to another anecdote about Jim Gardener, where he realizes the picture is an ultrasound of Lea’s pregnancy that she was holding when she died.

How

I think homonyms come in handy in this reveal. The first use of the word “picture” is, for me, metaphorical, a “picture he will never forget” can imply a physical photograph, but usually means a memory that doesn’t fade. It is easy to imagine Jim Gardener, the Baptist against pre-marital sex, staring at a corpse of a colleague and him never being able to forget it.

The mention of the uterine fibroid is another part of the setup, a passing detail that at first appears to be versimillitude and not much else: This is a real corpse in the story, and a mostly healthy body to begin with. Later, we learn it wasn’t a fibroid.

I think the small parts about the plastic fish also help. She lies to a character, then reveals, mirroring the information flow about her pregnancy.

Why?

The technique of hiding important information from the reader in a first person narrative is useful, one I need to acquire as I tend to write first person more than third. In this story, the reveal contributes to the first question of the piece: Why do ghosts exist? What causes a person to become a ghost? Clearly, not everyone who died is a ghost. There are a combination of murder victims and one of the murderers and one suicide in the mix. Victims of violent crimes
are ghosts. Okay, that’s one idea, but that doesn’t explain why one of the murderers is a ghost, but that murder/suicide ghost allows for Lea to be a ghost from suicide.

Depending on how you feel about life and conception, it is possible to interpret Lea as a murderer as well, thus muddying the waters about the question. It is easier to think of her as a suicide and not a murderer. We are left with an idea of unfinished business, even though there are no good arguments for that answer.

Lessons

To hide important information in a narrative:

  1. Hide it in plain sight with a metaphor that is easily interpreted differently
  2. Flat out lie to the reader by diminishing the important bit as something more quotidian.
  3. Having the person who hides this fact from the reader hide a fact from another character can
    prepare the reader for the whole idea that they have been decieved.
  4. Move the focus of the narrative away from the clues as they appear. In this story, each
    clue is given and then Lea starts to describe other characters attitudes or histories, in some way
    acting like a third-person narrator instead of first-person.

Followup Questions:

  1. When do you need to do this?
  2. Does this technique raise tension? In this story, it doesn’t, and that’s probably a good thing. I think hiding her pregnancy for most of the story helps explain the story, but it is so low-key it comes as a surprise. In fact,  I think that making a big deal out of a clue can raise the wrong kind of tension. I think this technique is good when you don’t want the reader to realize there’s another shoe to drop.
  3. What’s sitting in your trunk that could use this technique, or has an unsuccessful hide and reveal trick in the text?
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I am a genre writer from the Great Metropolitan Rain Forest.

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Posted in Asimov's Science Fiction, Sandra McDonald

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