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In narrative prose there is a commonly used device that probably has a proper name in literary theory, but I haven’t learned it, so I’ve given it my own: a “veiled known”. I use this clunky coinage to refer to a particular kind of phrasing, a way of conveying/concealing information.
veiled known (n.): information that is plainly known to the character(s), but which the story intentionally does not make known to the reader
Let me give an example. In a scene, Fatimah and Shivesh are talking about something idiotic Dale did when he was drunk last Tuesday morning. The way the author writes the scene, it’s obvious that both Fatimah and Shivesh know full well what happened, but the reader is left entirely clueless as to what the prank was. The story dangles before us the fact that there’s something known to the characters – but to the reader it is kept veiled. In this scene, Dale’s blooper is a “veiled known”.
(He tried burning ants with a magnifying glass and lit his own Crocs on fire. There, I told you.)
What I mean by “veiled knowns” might still be unclear, so I’ll invent a couple of samples here. For simplicity’s sake, please presume that each of these is the first paragraph of a story.
Heidi spread plenty of flour over the wooden cutting board, remembering from last time how the dough would stick to it otherwise. She used her thumbs to spread the dough, finding it tricky to keep it circular and avoid creating thin spots, then poked myriad holes in it with the tines of a fork. Using the round bottom of the ladle, she spread sauce evenly over it, then sprinkled cheese—lots of cheese, since, to her, this was the luxury and privilege of making her own pizza. But this pizza wasn’t to be only for her, and it would have one thing special about it. She bent to this task, then, smiling in satisfaction, proceeded to add toppings: pepperoni, diced bell pepper, fresh mushroom, and the rest.
This passage contains only one veiled known: what Heidi does to the pizza before putting on the toppings. Note that the narration makes clear—with language like “remembering” and “finding” and the opinion about cheese—that we are otherwise privy to Heidi’s thoughts. The impression given by “one thing special” and “bent to this task” is that Heidi knows something that the reader is not going to be allowed to find out yet, even though we’re in her head.
Now, a question: Did that annoy you?
Heidi hates what she sees in the bathroom mirror, and with good reason. After what he said to her last night, and in front of the others too, she could love herself to pieces and it wouldn’t matter—it’s all over now. Her makeup sits untouched on the counter, expectant, like early arrivals who don’t realise the party has been cancelled. Everyone can go ahead and hate me, she decides, only half-convincing herself; what I can’t change, I must accept. The hairbrush in her hand trembles until she gives up and puts it down. As for him—after what he has taken from her, how he has betrayed her, all he has cost her—well, the farther she gets from him, the better. But there’s still one person Heidi needs on her side. Will she believe me? wonders Heidi. It seems hopeless, but it is nonetheless her only remaining hope after the events of this week, and she clings to it.
This second passage is positively peppered with veiled knowns—things Heidi surely knows, which the narration steadfastly refuses to divulge to us. In fact, one gets to the end of it with precious little idea what’s going on. I confess, I’ve intentionally written it ad absurdum; but again let me ask: did it annoy you?
Just to make clear, “veiled knowns” do not refer to any and all missing information. In “Heidi and the Pizza” above, we’re not told exactly when the “last time” was that she made a pizza, nor whether her fork is metal or plastic, nor what sort of cheese she has chosen to sprinkle on, et cetera. We also don’t know that her Aunt Caroline moved to Borneo last year to work on a civet farm. (We’ll never know that; the story doesn’t mention it.) Unknown information is not the same as a veiled known.
Does all this make sense?
Now, when I gave those two examples above, I asked you whether each annoyed you. I am going to go out on a limb and speculate that the answer was “yes” for a smaller number of you with the first passage, “yes” for a significantly greater number with the second. (Some of you, perhaps, found nothing objectionable in either.) If you answered yes to either, then I think it is because that passage exceeded your personal “tipping point”.
“When,” to use that dread phrase from writing forums, “you do it well,” veiled knowns can build tension and drive the story. But I believe there is a point, entirely subjective and varying by the reader, when too many veiled knowns in too great a concentration cease to pique interest and instead become confusing or annoying.
This gives the impression of a storyteller who is not forthcoming with the story.
Naturally, the issue is compounded when the storytelling mode is either first person or omniscient; the former should theoretically give the reader access to anything the narrator knows; the latter is, well, all-knowing. If the narration has otherwise made no bones about telling us anything anytime, then when we encounter a veiled known we can only conclude we’re being kept in the dark on purpose. If this happens a lot, it can tax the reader’s goodwill.
Once this goodwill begins to run out, I fear readers will grow frustrated with opacity, taking the uncharitable view that the only way the plot can make itself compelling is by withholding details it could just as easily supply. Overemploying the veiled known device will impede rather than impel the story.
Perhaps a plot twist is on the way, and you want to set it up without spoiling it. Perhaps you wish to tease out key information little by little, first hooking the reader, then stringing them along. One wants to find a way to add detail to make key facts memorable without betraying to the reader what those facts will mean when the plot eventually twists. But how?
Information overload is something to avoid, but such overload can be brought about, paradoxically, by a paucity of explanation. The second sample above, “Heidi in the Mirror”, seems likely to send a reader’s head spinning, not because it gives them too much to remember, but because too much lingers unresolved. It needs more concrete detail. Ten mysterious facts will overload some readers’ minds when ten facts whose significance was better understood would not.
Draw a distinction between (a) information that must remain veiled to drive interest or conceal a plot twist, and (b) information that is simply being left out for “mystery”, perhaps because this is a narratorial tic the author has developed. Then do another pass to include more of (b). The more upfront you are with the reader, the fewer veiled knowns will remain, and the less likely you’ll hit that theoretical saturation point where you begin to erode reader goodwill.
Instead of making a point of telling the reader nothing, you can tell the reader enough that they may not notice a key fact is missing.
By analogy, suppose a burglar were to sneak into your house and steal valuables that were hidden in the bottom of a drawer. If the burglar cleaned out the entire drawer and left it hanging open, the loss of the valuables would be obvious to you the instant you came home and looked at the chest of drawers – the absence would be conspicuous. If, however, he left plenty of your belongings in place, slipping away with only the valuables, it could certainly be a while before you noted the theft.
Likewise, if some fact from a character’s past must be kept hush-hush, then rather than presenting readers with a gaping veiled known, I think it better to tell readers a little of this or a little of that, while still omitting the key detail.
For example, in the earlier pizza example, let’s say the narration had shown Heidi uncorking a small black bottle and sprinkling drops of liquid onto just half the pizza before adding toppings. This wouldn’t tell us precisely what’s up, but it would appear to tell us more than the original version does.
Another way of managing a veiled known is to filter it through a character to whom it is unknown, acknowledging and mirroring the reader’s own presumable confusion. Say João asks Heidi a question, and the story wants to conceal the answer not just from João but also from us. If the scene were through Yoko’s eyes instead of Heidi’s, we might more easily accept the idea that, because Yoko doesn’t know, we won’t know:
Yoko had known Heidi for years and could tell that there was one more answer to João’s question, an answer Heidi was keeping her own council on for now. Yoko felt a flash of annoyance at her old friend: why did she always have to keep everything so clandestine?”
We can provide the same information, and the same level of mystery, without potentially annoying readers by granting them access to Heidi’s head while simultaneously excluding them from it. Yoko will be the veil.
I look forward to reading any responses to this post. Does the veiled known strike you as a problem in narration? Or do you think I’m being too touchy about it? Is there already an official name for this thing? Disabuse me (or, since this is the internet, go ahead and, ahem, abuse me) in the comments. Thanks for reading.