This is a post about ignorance. Not ignorance by the author, although I sometimes feel like I'm a specialist in that too, but about keeping your readers and characters in the dark.
To write a good story in any genre, you'll want to keep your characters ignorant about certain things. Not knowing the motivations or back story of other characters, for instance, allows the author to create tension and deepen character interactions. Whether the author lets the reader know those motivations or not will create very different types of stories.
Whenever I sit down to write a new book, one of the first questions I ask is "What is really going on?" You only have to look back a couple of hundred years to see some really odd ideas about science, history, geography, or medicine. We knew relatively little about the way the world worked. And you only have to talk to a scientist, historian, or archaeologist to see that we still don't know that much. The archaeological record is incomplete. Written sources are few and not always reliable. Most of the universe has yet to bow to scientific inquiry.
Now imagine you're working with a completely imagined world, or a world in which history is fundamentally different to the history we know. The opportunities for ignorance are immense.
When I started to write my SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB series, I outlined a "known history" - the history that the characters believe they know - and a "true history" - in other words, what actually happened. As the books are set on Mars with dinosaurs, ancient dragon emperors, weird inventions, and semi-sentient, highly aggressive plants, not to mention all sorts of peculiar creatures, that gave me a giant canvass to paint on. The characters may believe they know the history of the world, but in many respects they are very, very wrong.
But why go to all this effort? For some people - most of us, I suspect - creating one detailed history stretching back over thousands and millions of years is work enough. Why create two?
Well, apart from the fact that it is all too convenient and frankly unbelievable for the characters to be more informed about the history of their world than we are of ours, it allows us to do more with the story and give it more depth.
Here's what I do. I sit down and write out the "What is going on?" section. In some books, like SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB, it is a full history of the world and the technology and creatures in it. In another of my not-yet-published books, it is how magic works and what devious plots the bad guys are up to. Then I figure out a credible history and set of beliefs that the characters might have that don't immediately contradict what is actually happening. This is the world that the characters think they live in. Then, as the books progress, I drop in, as subtly as I can, points that contradict what the characters believe. Glimpses of the truth. Not necessarily enough for readers to figure out the whole truth, but hints that things might not be as they are portrayed.
This allows me to subvert expectations and make readers a little unsure about whether what they are being told is really true. It introduces tension. Not too much. You don't want readers to think, yet, that everything they are being told is nonsense. It still has to be credible.
This is, essentially, how any unreliable narrator works, and in this model, the whole structure of the world is an unreliable narrator.
Then, at some point, I can flip everything that the reader and characters know, to move to an entirely different paradigm. I can make the reader look back at everything that has happened with different eyes. Or, at least, that's the theory. It offers me the chance to turn my book from something that is enjoyable and fun to something that will make readers go "Whoa!" and, hopefully, remember forever.
Ignorance is bliss. Give it a go.
Thank you so much for guest posting on Kidliterati, Patrick! Here's more on The Emperor of Mars:
A missing Martian. A sinister plot. A French spy.
If Edward thought life was going to be easy in Tharsis City, he was very, very wrong. The moment he intercepts a thief escaping from Lady Harleston’s townhouse, he is caught up in a terrible scheme that threatens the whole of Mars.
Soon he’s fighting off vicious sea serpents, battling a small army of heavily-armored thugs, and trying to unpick an impossible mystery. Meanwhile, Putty has declared war on her new governess, a war that, for the first time in her life, Putty may be in danger of losing.
Edward doesn’t know whom he can trust. Will he make the right choice? Or will his family – and his entire planet – fall victim to the treacherous Emperor of Mars?
Join Edward and his family for a whole new, exciting adventure on Mars.