Holding back – lessons from Al-Rassan 4

Posted: January 10, 2014 in lessons learned, reading
Tags: , , , , ,

In discussing The Lions of Al-Rassan I’ve deliberately kept one aspect of Guy Gavriel Kay’s technique until last. It’s an interesting one, and it’s one that he mostly uses well, but if there’s one thing about the book that bothers me then it’s over-use of this. So, not to put you off, but today I’m going to be slightly less gushing and slightly more critical.

Withholding on character

Authors always withhold some information from their audiences. Without it there are no mysteries. What’s the point of a Poirot story if you see who done it at the start?

There’s a particular approach to this that is more unusual and that can be used to build up tension. That’s withholding key information about a character. It’s often used to develop surprising twists in short stories and jokes, as the audience discovers near the end that an assumption they were led towards about the character’s gender, identity or state of being is wrong.

Sixth Sense, I’m looking at you. And I’m looking with admiration.

It’s a neat bit of trickery that pulls the rug out from beneath the audience’s feet, or that can create mystery in an otherwise dull situation. Jill is walking down the road to see a man, but which man? There are two we know that she has been seeing. Which one has she chosen? When will we know???

And right there, that’s also the problem with this technique. You’re building tension out of nothing. You’re often seeing the scene from the point of view of a character who knows exactly what’s going on, and the author is going to great lengths to hold something back, avoiding proper nouns or describing things in a circuitous fashion. Itrelies on the novelty of the technique rather than the strength of the story, and that’s a dangerous thing.

Withholding in Al-Rassan

Kay does this several times in the course of The Lions of Al-Rassan. Every time he writes it well. He builds up suspense in the reader. In one scene we know that a character has died and we know how. We know from the other characters’ reactions that it’s someone we care about. But who is it? By showing the scene from several different perspectives Kay draws out this tension and adds to the emotional punch of the moment, as the tragic truth approaches the reader through a maze of red herrings.

The problem is that he does it several times, and by the end it was starting to feel rather forced. A character thinking about his wife repeatedly over several pages without ever letting slip her name to the reader? That doesn’t feel natural and it reduces my immersion in the story.

I’m glad that I got to see how Kay used this technique, but I could have done with a little less of it. So my final lesson from this book is that, if you’ve got a clever literary trick you want to play with, don’t overdo it. All things in moderation.

Loving the Lions

I don’t want to finish on a bum note. No book is flawless, but The Lions of Al-Rassan is a great one. And so for the last time this week I say go read this book. It’s well worth your time.

Have a fun weekend everyone. Go read some good books. Maybe tell me about them, or your thoughts on Al-Rassan, in the comments below.

  1. SiC says:

    I liked the upside-down map.

  2. I understand what you mean about it feeling “forced” when authors do this too many times in a row. There’s a difference between adding tension and just sticking your tongue out at the reader and saying, “nah-nah!” It’s more annoying than thrilling sometimes.
    I think a far more effective technique is the use of dramatic irony, where the roles are reversed; the reader knows something that the character doesn’t. For example: a woman walking down the road, thinking she is about to meet her lover, but the reader knows that the man waiting for her is actually planning to kill her. The reader knows this, but the woman doesn’t, and they can’t do anything about it except watch her walk to her impending doom, knowing every little decision she unwittingly makes could mean her life. (As a side note, one needs look no further than AMC’s Breaking Bad for a graduate-level lesson on dramatic irony!)
    Cool post, Andrew!

    • Yes, dramatic irony usually works better for me as well, especially if it’s going to be drawn out.
      I have to admit to having stalled in the middle of season two of Breaking Bad. Not because it isn’t good – that first season and a half was amazing – it’s just so unremittingly uncomfortable. Their ability to create tension and a fascinated horror at the characters’ decisions is amazing, it’s just hard to watch at times. One of these days I will get back to it.

  3. Jon Taylor says:

    I am still listening but I think that this technique just tipped over into annoying teasing around three quarters through the book. Then GGK wrote the line; “this oldest, endless sorrow of mankind and new every single time”… and all was forgiven. I’ve got some grit in my eye. That must be it.

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