Don’t Tell the Reader

Why should you withhold information from the reader? So your readers will wonder. So your readers will guess. So your readers will engage in the story. 

In an April 2019 Writer’s Digest blog, Bryan Young highlighted the importance of withholding information until just the right time. The author of 20 books used examples from the all-time classic film Casablanca.

Timing is everything, Young wrote. The audience doesn’t meet Rick Blaine until after several setup scenes, after the screenwriters had created several mysteries, after the screenwriters had engaged the audience: the saloon owner doesn’t drink with customers; Rick is unimpressed by everything; he’s emotionally detached; he sticks out his neck for nobody. He fought for Ethiopia and Spain, but he’s inexplicably neutral about the Allies and the Germans.

“One of the hallmarks of a good screenplay,” Young wrote, “or any story, really – is having the right amount of information doled out at exactly the right time. Too much exposition and the audience gets bored and angry. Not enough context and the audience gets confused. And angry.”

So how does a writer know the right amount of information? Films and novels have given great examples. The stageplay by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison and the screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Phillip G. Epstein and Howard Koch withheld information in a non-linear way.

But first, a refresher for those who haven’t watched Casablanca since the 1942 premiere: Germany started World War II and occupied Poland (1939), Denmark (1940), Norway (1940), Belgium (1940), Netherlands (1940), Luxembourg (1940), France (1940), Yugoslavia (1941), and Greece (1941).

However, the French colony of Morocco remained unoccupied, so Casablanca becomes the African embarkation point for Europeans escaping to America. Before the movie begins, German couriers carrying exit visas are killed. The camera finds Rick’s Café Americain. 

Anti-Nazi Resistance leader Victor Lazlo and his wife, Ilsa Lund, are chased by the Nazis, and they’re also trying to get to America. Victor and Ilsa want those stolen letters of transit, signed by de Galle, so they can’t be rescinded. They can fill in their own names. 

Sidebar: the letters of transit were a MacGuffin – an object, device, or event necessary to the plot. MacGuffins are usually created to motivate characters. R2D2 and C3PO were MacGuffins. The Maltese Falcon was a MacGuffin. The Holy Grail was one of the earliest MacGuffins. 

The exit visas complicated the plot and motivated Rick Blaine, Ilsa Lund, Victor Laszlo, the police, and the Germans who wanted to arrest Laszlo. Rick had the exit visas, and with them he could whisk Ilsa and Victor to safety, Young wrote. Or, Victor suggested, Rick could keep the woman he loves if he gets her out of the country.

Okay, back to the story: everything changes when Ingrid Bergman’s character enters the bar. She knows Sam, the piano player. “Play As Time Goes By for me.” Sam protests, but he plays one of the world’s most nostalgic tunes.

Then Rick enters. He’s incensed. “I thought I told you never to play that song.”

Why? Another mystery.

Sam motions with his eyes. Rick, played by Humprey Bogart, sees Isla. It’s clear these three have history together. 

What happened between them? Another mystery. 

Sam moves his piano across the room. He knows something’s about to explode.

Suddenly, the invulnerable Rick is vulnerable. Something else has been withheld from the audience.

Rick is introduced to Victor Laszlo, and the rules are broken once again. Rick, who never drinks with customers, sits with Ilsa, Victor and Police Captain Renault (Claude Rains). Rick speaks with passion about the Resistance leader (Paul Henried). Rick pays the bar bill. 

Why? Another mystery. Why is Rick breaking every rule for Laszlo, whom he has never met? Get the picture? The writers have created mysteries that will be unraveled during the balance of the film. The audience is fully engaged in Act One.

Act Two: A flashback is shown. 

Sidebar: Every conference speaker and every agent and every blogger tell writers to never use flashbacks. Never. Never. Never violate that rule. But of course, flashbacks are effectively used in some of the best books (Gone Girl, Water for Elephants, The Girl on the Train), movies (example: Citizen Kane, Terminator, Forrest Gump) and TV shows (example: Lost, The Good Place, This Is Us). 

Anyway, back to the story: Casablanca sends us back in time to Paris. Rick and Ilsa were lovers. Ilsa was married, but never told Rick. Victor was in a Nazi concentration camp, and Ilsa was told Victor had been killed. 

As the flashback builds to its climax, the Nazis marched on Paris. Parisians heard the German guns. They knew the city would fall. But then, Ilsa heard Victor is alive. She must go to him. The situation was too dangerous to tell Rick. Rick and Ilsa agreed to meet at the train station. Rick waited for Ilsa at the station, in the rain, for the last train out of Paris. Each second became more tense, more desperate. 

The stageplay by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison and the screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Phillip G. Epstein and Howard Koch withhold information in a non-linear way: present day in Casablanca, flashback in Paris, present day in Casablanca.

What if there were no Paris flashback, Young asked? “How would this work into the script if the movie were told chronologically? What would happen … if we knew everything about Paris and Ilsa from the beginning? Would her entrance to Rick’s Café and their meeting in the present have the same punch? Would our attention be held if this (flashback) exposition had been spoon fed to us from the start?”

Maybe that’s why Casablanca’s script was constantly rewritten, and the actors received new lines every day.

“I argue the audience wouldn’t be invested if they learned all of the pertinent information about Paris even a second before it’s given to us,” Young wrote. 

The lesson is clear: withhold information, create a mystery, heighten the impact when the information is released.

Therefore, Young contended, writers must contrive ways to withhold information. “How do you do this in your own writing? Make sure that the information you’re giving is absolutely vital to understand everything at that current moment in your script.”

The exposition should not give away too much. Maybe it should raise more questions than it answers, Young suggested. That’s how J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, and Damon Lindel created tension and suspense in Lost. Each episode would answer three questions and raise four. That’s how Lost became the water-cooler topic of American workplaces from 2004 to 2010. Audience weren’t just engaged, they were enraged. They were frustrated. 

Reverse engineer your story, Young suggested: “If you have a prologue, reevaluate it.” After all, the purpose of a prologue is to give information to the audience. Could you cut that backstory entirely? Could you dribble that backstory later in the story? Would that backstory be more impactful in Chapter 27?

Young watched deleted scenes from Star Wars IV. “The first act of the film used to be riddled full of scenes with Luke Skywalker and his daily life as his story comes to a trajectory that will put him on a path to meet the droids and rescue the galaxy.”

Did the audience actually need Luke’s backstory early in Act 1? Lucas removed Luke’s background and started with Darth Vader capturing Princess Leia’s starship and her desperate plea in a hologram. Luke’s background came in the middle of Act One; Luke found Leia’s hologram later in Act One. “Withholding it and introducing Luke at the moment he meets the droids is much more satisfying and allows us to learn about Luke in a way that gets us to ask questions about him, rather than have that information spoon fed.”

George Lucas filmed the story in a way that made sense to him when he wrote the story. However, after Lucas watched the rough cut (in a novel, the writer would be reading his first draft), the director decided to withhold information from the audience. And he created more mysteries.

When Princess Leia pleaded in her hologram, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” Luke didn’t who Obi-Wan was. Nor did the audience. Could Princess Leia be asking about old Ben Kenobi, Luke asked Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. 

Watch their faces tense. Yes. That’s Obi-Wan.

No, Owen lies. “That old man’s just a crazy old wizard.”

As the audience learned in Star Wars III, Obi-Wan had given baby Luke to Owen and Beru nineteen years ago. To keep Luke safe from his father, Darth Vader, Owen and Beru had withheld that crucial information from Luke. And, thusly, Lucas withheld that info from the audience and created a mystery.

On Battlestar Galactica, the audience was informed that Cylons were robotic weapons, created to serve the military. Not much else.

The audience quickly found out the robots were artificially intelligent, so the robots realized they were slaves. The machines began to resent humans, rebelled, and fought a long and bloody war against their human masters. Then the machines retreated into hiding.

The rest of the storyline was dribbled out over four seasons. It turned out Cylon robots had created a third clone race that looked like humans. Humans nicknamed the machines “toasters;” the clones were called “skin jobs.” Five clone models were stationed with the Colonial fleet; seven clone models were moles on the Colonial planets and in the Colonial fleet. Some Cylons knew they were clones and were loyal to the Cylon race; sleeper Cylons thought they were human and were loyal to the Colonists. 

Season one started as skin jobs returned and nuked the twelve Colonial planets. Billions died. Just 50,000 Colonists – and three Cylons who thought they were human – were rescued. They had a few dozen civilian spacecraft and decided to look for Earth. In fables, Earth was a thirteenth colony inhabited by a lost tribe of humans. No one knew where it was. A massive Cylon fleet pursued the humans, intent on total genocide.

Reveal: Near the end of the fourth (final) season, the Colonial fleet found Earth, but the planet had been wiped out by nuclear weapons 2,000 years ago. The Cylons recovered their memories; flashbacks revealed the original Cylons had been human. Their current clone bodies had been recreated after Earth’s destruction. That meant Cylons had been the lost tribe of original humans. Cylons had resurrected themselves and relocated to the twelve Colonies. 

One more reveal: the Colonials and the Cylons united and found another Earthlike planet. They settled on our Earth 150,000 years ago. Humans and Cylons mated with the first humans to walk upright, and the three races created Mitochondrial Eve. Yep. That makes Cylons the parents of the human race.

Did I get all that right? I think so. I’ve watched Battlestar three times, but I realize something new every time. The show originally ran on Syfy, and has been rerunning on Comet (channel 34.3 over the air in Oklahoma City) for several months.

“At the end of the day,” Young advised: “play with the structure of your screenplay to see how long you can put off the vital information. Go through and ensure that no piece of information is extra. Withhold everything you can in a way that raises questions for the audience but doesn’t confuse them. Hit them with the full story only when they absolutely need it.

“And rewatch Casablanca. That’s always the right move.”