Q&A

Can I Conceal Information in a First-Person Viewpoint?

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Is it possible to have a first-person narrator hiding a secret from the reader (and from other characters), which would be revealed at some point later in the story? And I mean not being an unreliable narrator. I can see how this could be done in third-person, but is there a good way to do this in first?

-Claudia

Hey Claudia, thanks for writing in!

The answer to your question is both yes and no, depending on what kind of narration you’re using. First, let’s assume you’re using an unfolding narration style. That means that the first-person narrator is conveying events as they happen in real time. Whether present tense or past tense, there’s no filter between the protagonist’s mind and the reader.

In this narration style, withholding information is extremely difficult. The advantage of an unfolding narration is that it’s super immersive, helping the reader feel as if they are in the protagonist’s shoes and experiencing the story. If the narrator withholds information from the reader, it will feel contrived and probably cause the reader a great deal of frustration.

On the other hand, you might be using a retelling narration. This style assumes that the narrator is telling a story about something that happened to them in the past. This style is less immersive because it puts a filter between the reader and the protagonist, but it allows for some additional wordcraft flare that would feel out of place in an unfolding story.

In a retelling narration, it is technically possible to withhold information without breaking your narrative premise. But, and this is a big but, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Even in a retelling narrative, readers will enjoy being able to place themselves in the hero’s shoes. The story’s satisfaction comes from watching the hero overcome problems and figure out mysteries.

If it turns out that the hero had everything they needed all along, the story will lose a lot of satisfaction. Likewise, if they knew the details of some dramatic reveal all along, like that the villain is actually their sibling, readers can feel like the author is trying to trick them, which isn’t a recipe for enjoyment.

In the vast majority of cases, you want to give readers all the information they need to understand what’s happening, and that includes whatever relevant info the viewpoint character knows. Otherwise, the viewpoint characters actions may be confusing, since they’re acting on info that the reader doesn’t have. There are occasional exceptions, and they only work for short periods of time, but they should be used very carefully.

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    I have a protagonist who tells the story first-person and unfolding, but at one point, she has to consciously avoid thinking about her plan, and when she thinks about it only do so in deliberately convoluted ways, to prevent a telepathic villain from finding out. Beta readers liked that segment – they know she has a plan, but probably won’t be able go figure out the details before it goes off. But obviously that’s a VERY peculiar situation.

    • Erynus

      I think very difficult thinking about not thinking about something. No matter how arcane or confusing the words are, i think the hero would think about the connection between the thoughts and the plan.
      The best way i can think of is by thinking on a movie, book or such that have similar scenes. Like telling your team mates that you’ll do an “oceans 11” could mean you will infiltrate their enemie’s fortress dressed as guards.
      Obviously that would only work in a world with our same pop culture or even classical culture for something as simple as a “Trojan horse” situation. Slang is the key.

      • Jeppsson

        It IS super difficult. Long story short, but she thinks about her plan in convoluted, metaphorical terms, and rhymes, pretending she’s just composing songs (she’s in a band). It helps that she’s got a lot of training in “thought defense”, but it’s still very difficult, and the villain soon suspects she’s up to something.

        • Paul C

          That sounds very, very cool! As a reader, I would be trying to figure out the plan from the musical (and other) clues. Good luck!

          • Jeppsson

            Thanks!

  2. Sam Victors

    My young protagonist is withholding information of her birth/identity, mainly because she denies it and doesn’t want to accept it as fact, as it would prove and admit to herself that there is something wrong with her, as the townsfolk gossip about.

    She embraces that she’s different, but not ‘broken’ as the townsfolk and her aunt think. And she’s living in the late 1920s.

  3. Brandon Harbeke

    It worked via the retelling method when Agatha Christie did it (withholding title in case someone reading this hasn’t gotten to that book yet), but it is something that requires rarity and subtlety to pull off.

  4. Emily

    I’m currently reading Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series for the first time, and both the first book (The Thief) and the fourth (A Conspiracy of Kings) do this well. They’re both in first person for some or all of the book, framed as the narrator relating events to someone later.

  5. Claudia

    Aw thanks (once again) for answering my question! Even though I’m still not completely sure of this, for now I opted for third-person limited and revealing the character’s secret (to the reader) around the middle act. This way, I think I won’t “annoy” the reader so much, and from the middle act until the end I can try and hold tension with whether/when the other character is going to find out about this secret, and what her reaction will be. At least I always enjoy it when one protagonist hides something from the other, and we the readers know it. Keeps me biting my nails in expectation.

    Even if holding the secret in first person until the end is doable, I don’t feel confident enough to try that. I’m pretty new to the whole writing thing, so I don’t think I could pull it off. Yet.

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