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Old 02-09-2015, 05:15 AM View Post #1 (Link) Description In Prose
Infinity_Man (Offline)
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It's been a while since I've written a guide, and I'm currently between Works-In-Progress--I'm currently reading through my most recent first draft, and my next WIP is just a flicker of an idea in my head. So I need to get my fix for actual writing somehow, and a guide seemed like the best way to go about that.

Today, I'm going to talk about description in prose. As with all of my guides, what I say here is entirely my opinion, formed with little experience other than what I like to read, what mild success I've had writing, and what I've seen and heard from other writers. As with all writing rules, this is not a rigid outline of how to write, but merely one of many strategies that may or may not work for you.

Description is a very tricky subject to write, as it requires fine balance. Too much description and you bog down the plot and pacing of your story, and your reader gets bored. Too little description, and your reader has little help constructing their own imagery, and they will be less immersed in your writing. Even if you strike the right balance, how you present that description can make or break the effectiveness of the description itself. Hopefully I can help inspire a process inside of you that will help improve your description.

Description That Is Important To The Story

The first kind of description that you must must must must communicate to the reader is one that will play a significant role in the plot at some point.

You may be foreshadowing. For example, if your character escapes a burning building by diving out a window and onto the roof opposite, it is essential you tell us that there is a window with a view of the opposite view, preferably before the fire he's escaping from begins (assuming he was in the room before the fire started). Otherwise, the character's overcoming of the obstacle will feel cheap, as if the author just comes in to play a hand in the character's success. It'd be like if you ended the chapter with a character hanging from a cliff (a cliffhanger, you might say) only to turn around and say "he gently landed on the ground a few feet beneath him." Your readers will feel cheated if you don't establish this crucial information beforehand.

Or you might be providing us an image that will clue us in later. If your character finds out that the villain is someone with a horrible scar in the shape of a skull on his neck, and he declares "oh, I know who that is, it's [previously trusted character]" then we'd better know way beforehand that [previously trusted character] has a neck skull scar.

This kind of description might, and probably should, seem like common sense to include, and I don't doubt you already know this unless you're literally just starting out writing and this just happened to be the first guide to help you start writing that you found (in which case, oh my are there so many better guides out there by more qualified people that you could be reading). Despite it's obviousness, I started with this kind of description because you HAVE to have it and, as I'm going to be arguing for a more minimalist approach, it will probably make up a huge chunk of your description should you follow this guide.

Compare this against information we absolutely don't need to know. Unless it serves some function discussed later in this guide, ask yourself if we really need to know your character's hair colour, or if we need to know how pretty someone is, etc.

Description Through Character

I didn't want to go to this point next. I wanted a nice organized guide where I first talked about what kinds of description you could include, and then a second part where I talked about how to execute description. Unfortunately, a lot of what I wanted to talk about doesn't make a lot of sense unless I talk about the concept of description through character first.

Chances are, the story you're writing is either in first person perspective or a limited third person perspective. Omniscient and second person are possible, but not quite as common. This means the reader is probably sticking pretty closely to one character's perspective in a scene, which means we're either connecting the narrator to the character (in terms of first person perspective) or we're subconsciously connecting the narrator to the character (in terms of the limited third person perspective). Either way, we're seeing events from only one character's perspective, only getting the thoughts of one character, and overall sticking straight to that person's train of thought.

So why should description be any different?

Description through character simply means describing the things your character notices. Or, to put it another way, it means describing the things your character would notice. A detective entering a suspect's house will see it way differently than the elderly spinster who's lived there all her life. It simply doesn't make sense that you'd describe the same setting the same way between both perspectives.

If you'd like to try an exercise, go to one of your stories and pick two separate characters, preferably not the main character. If you don't have a story to choose from, that's okay--you can pick characters from a book you like, or just make up new ones (writers making up new characters? Madness.) Now describe the room you're sitting in from their perspectives, with a specific goal that they'll notice different things in the room, or at least will see those same things differently. There's going to be overlap, so don't worry, but the goal is to get a sense for how the characters think differently.

Description through character can be very powerful, as not only does it give you a chance to describe the setting or a character's physical appearance, but it also can tell the reader something about the person doing the describing, and any writing that manages to accomplish two tasks at once is strong writing.

At the same time, it creates certain limitations that, if challenged, might break your reader's immersion. Since you're describing through character, there are certain descriptions you have to avoid. Imagine yourself walking into your bedroom. How much of it do you notice? How much of it do you take in? If you've been living in that bedroom for a long time, nothing probably springs out at you, since you acknowledge it all without conscious thought at this point.

This is a truth that is easy to understand and accept, yet so many new writers have their main characters describing everyone's hair colour, including their own. When was the last time, honestly, you thought about your hair colour? I mean, sure, people do it, but people don't just think "my hair is brown" (Yes, I'm claiming to know the inner thoughts of people). And yet young/new writers try and get away with that all the time.

This breaks immersion because it doesn't make sense a character would note their own physical appearance without reason, unless they're a character in a book and they're trying to tell the reader what they look like. The reader recognizes themselves as the reader there, as the target for the information, and they are reminded they're just reading a book or story--and any time your reader is reminded they're reading is a time when immersion is broken.

I'm not saying you can't tell us about hair colour, or the fact their bedroom walls are bright green, or what have you. People do think about these things. But the point is to find a reason to give us this information, to have a point to it, rather than just telling us for the sake of telling us.

Further limitations continue with information a character couldn't possibly know. One of my biggest pet peeves with new writers is the (as I see it) inexplicable need to describe a character's height to the nearest inch. I just can't believe it when some high schooler tells us her friend is "6'3" because why would she know that? Maybe all of you just have a stronger sense of measurement than I do, but I don't know anyone's foot/inch height. There are circumstances that would lead the character to knowing this information, maybe, but even then why would she use the exact phrase "6'3" when just about everyone else would say "tall"?

Like I said, description through character will tell us as much about the character doing the description as the description itself will. That means you have to be careful with how you describe things--if your character tells me her friend is "6'3" I am going to assume one of the following: 1) She is peculiar 2) She has some sort of mental tendency that leads her to being exact with numbers, i.e she's a savant when it comes to recognizing height or 3) she's from a society where this kind of thing is perfectly normal. If any of those are what you're trying to establish, then great! Mission accomplished. But if it's not, if your main character is a relatively normal person, does not have a mental disorder, and she's from North America, you're better off describing that 6'3 person as "tall".

Description That Sets The Scene

While I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to my writing, I do recognize that there are a number of readers (myself included, really) that like to have at least enough description that they can form a clear mental picture of what's happening. That's why it can be okay to describe things that don't play importance to the story, as you'll find in many books. However, this kind of description can still serve some purpose.

For characters, description is often a handy tool to cementing the character in a reader's mind. We won't necessarily remember them just on their name, but if the character is noteworthy for having a huge beard, then when he (or she; I won't judge your bearded characters) reappears a few chapters later, having that beard as a signal will remind the reader who this is.

Tone is also important in setting, as there's probably a big difference between the description of a happy home in a lighter novel and the description of a secret Nazi zombie bunker in the middle of an epic battle. The way you describe setting, and what kind of things you describe, can help communicate what kind of story it is you're writing. It's more helpful when the differences are subtle--take one home and focus on all the nice things in the room, versus focusing on the rundown, under-appreciated aspects of the same room, and we get a very different sense of the world.

But perhaps the most important aspect of setting description is to fill a void. Sometimes, when you get carried away with character's dialogue or action, you forget to remind the reader of the space the characters inhabit. Maybe your characters get up to move to a different place in the setting, only for you to forget to actually describe where they end up (as I discovered I did while editing the other day). What you risk is talking heads syndrome, where your characters simply don't exist in feasible space, and are just floating heads talking to each other as far as the reader is concerned. The result is shallow and uninteresting writing that is hard to follow, which can easily be countered by just reminding us where we are.

Descriptors can also be a nice way to break up large chunks of action or dialogue, breaking a rhythm and giving the reader something fresh to consume.

So while setting doesn't have to advance the plot, there are many other functions it can serve.

Description Through Action

A good way of establishing description is to sneak it in the middle of action, i,e when the characters are doing something. Part of this effectiveness is, again, the principle of conservation: the more function you can give a single sentence, the stronger the writing, and this inherently gives a sentence two functions. While it can be heavy handed if overdone, description through action also tends to be more subtle than straight description.

For example, if I stop to describe a room and say "There's a knife sitting on the table next to the lamp," we get that there's a knife on a table next to a lamp, but the description isn't very active and, as a result, reads rather stagnantly. Compare that to "he reached for the knife, knocking the lamp off the table in his haste." It's not good (mostly because I made it up on the spot) but you can see the point I'm trying to get across. The same information--there's a knife on a table next to a lamp--is established, but with the added movement of the character reaching for the knife, of trying to accomplish something, and advancing the plot. Ideally, the reader doesn't even consciously respond to the description, but notes it's there.

The heavy-handed version of this is more common with character description, which can be trickier to get across subtly, and often ends up with overdone passages like the character brushing away their brown hair to try and establish the

When To Describe

When you describe something is just as important as what you describe and, depending on the function, can be even more important.

First you should keep in mind the rhythm and pacing of your story. Stopping to describe something usually slows down the pace, unless you're solely describing through action (which can be rather jarring and get out of hand quickly if overdone). That means there's a time and place to stop and describe things, and maybe in the middle of a fight scene, where you want fast-paced action, is not the best place to do so.

Understand that your plot has ups and downs in terms of pacing--or, it should probably have that. Too much fast-paced plot moving forward can quickly overwhelm the readers, or bore them (despite what Hollywood wants us to think, non-stop action is not a good thing) whereas too much slow, plodding pacing is sure to put the reader to sleep. Anyway, your plot has these moments, so it's important to know a) where these moments are and b) how you can control these moments through your writing.

So, as I said, larger sections of description slow down the pacing, and are therefore best positioned in a part of your story where you want to slow things down.

I also spoke earlier about how description that's crucial to the plot needs to be strategically positioned. Let's use the earlier example of the character with the skull-shaped scar on his neck. This description plays an important role in advancing the plot, as identifying it leads the main character to a revelation of who the villain is. But if you put this description too early in the story, most likely the reader will forget about it (assuming a certain length in your story). If you put this description too close to the reveal, however, you risk the reader catching on to what you're setting up, and lessen the impact of the reveal quite a bit.
To speak to the other example, of the character escaping a burning building by jumping out a window onto another roof, it depends on context. If the character bursts into a new room, looking for an escape, and finds the window, then that's fine. But if he's been in the room for a while and only just notices the window leads out to a roof, that can feel like a deus ex machina (depending on how you write it, of course). So you want to establish that as early as you can as well, without being too obvious about what you're setting up.

Generally, description is best served being presented as soon as possible. You're not going to walk a character into a room and wait ten pages to describe the room. You won't introduce a character and not give us some sense of what they look like until their death scene a few chapters later. The reason is this: the longer you leave an image--whether it's of setting or character--the longer you let the reader imagine their own image. By the time they get to the late description, they've already got their own idea of what the character/setting looks like, and anything you say to the contrary will jar their image. So, again, you have to balance not introducing description so early that you kill the pacing, but you also can't wait so long that you leave the reader feeling lost.

Fortunately, readers filling in the blanks can work to your advantage because...

Less Is (Often) More

Most readers have an imagination. When they read, their imagination is getting stimulated. It's working. It's turning the words you're giving them and playing the story out in their head. Often, this means using the descriptions of setting and character you've given them and turning that into a mental picture. That's why we describe things, isn't it?

The weakest kind of description, next to no description at all, is over-describing something. Too often I see writers try and give me every single detail of a character (such as the fact they're 6'3) or the exact specifications of a room (although I can't say anyone's tried to give me square footage of a space, fortunately). The same issue comes up a lot in action scenes, where the writer completely choreographs their fight scene (I've written about why this is a bad thing before).

One truth of being a writer that you'll have to get over now is that you can't always have it your way. Try however hard you want, your reader's imagination will trump any description you give them, even if it's contrary to what you say.

Too much description is, simply put, boring. This is because anyone who writes an excess of information probably also lacks the skills to present that description in an interesting way, so this isn't to say you can't describe a lot at once. But be careful. I think a large part of it is just that, no matter what you describe, eventually the reader is going to picture their own image, something that your text reminds them of, and no amount of info-dump will change their mind.

(Fun fact: When I was younger, I pictured Gilderoy Lockhart from the Harry Potter books as a Latin singer that appears in an episode of the show Hey Arnold! I have no reason for this, other than their characters had similar personalities.)

You might be angry about this. You might say "no, the reader is going to picture what I want them to picture, damn it!" to which I ask: Why? What's wrong with a reader using their imagination? That means they're engaging with your book, and getting more fully immersed in what you're writing. That's what you want. Why challenge that?

However, be careful. As I said at the beginning, too little description can kill a reader's immersion. This is because we need something to ground us in the scene, something to get their imagination working.

Anyway, going the less is more route also does wonders for your pacing, and can lead to stronger description overall. As an exercise, try writing a story where you can only describe one feature of every character that shows up, as well as only two or three features of a setting. You'll probably find that, with such little room for description, you have to focus on what's important. This means finding defining features of characters and settings that will stick out in the mind of the reader stronger than if you gave us the character's height. This is especially useful because you should be aiming for...

Specific Description Over Vagueness

In writing, hard-hitting, punchy specifics, something that's definite, is almost always better than meandering prose that's unsure of itself. It's not enough for a character to "seem angry." They have to be seething, their face turning red, a vein popping on their forehead. They have to be waving their fists and screaming at God to smite them now.

Well, not really. But you get the idea.

The point is that definites will impact the reader more strongly than empty descriptors. Part of this plays into description through character--if you tell us a room seems large, I have to wonder what your character is doubting about the size of the room. If someone seems to be crying, can the character not tell? This is doubly important if you have a narrator that's pulled back, such as a distant third person perspective or an omniscient narrator. Why would an objective omniscient narrator be vague about anything?

This also plays into the idea of picking a few descriptors, because the more specific you are, the more likely you are to pick something that stands out. Instead of describing your character as tall, with brown hair and blue eyes, why not note the fact that they keep one of their hands in their pocket at all times, or sniff every time they finish a sentence? Instead of describing a bedroom as being a) a room and b) containing a bed, why not describe the horrid One Direction posters lining the wall, or the series of mirrors in the corner?

The point is, again to establish something else about who's doing the description, or the described character themselves, or the caretakers or history of the room. What can we learn about the person who sleeps in a bedroom covered in One Direction posters and mirrors? What kind of tone can we set with a character who keeps a hand in their pocket at all times?

But this also plays into the idea of quirks, which are character/setting features that aren't quite as deep or strong as actual background or personality (giving your character a quirk does not count as characterization, so a character who is nothing but quirks will be little more than quirky). Maybe your character is always smoking, or the room you're describing has a flickering light, or anything that you can point to later to remind the reader of where they are or who you're talking about. It's like the skull-shaped scar I've been talking about--when you bring up that character a few chapters after they've been introduced, the reader will (hopefully) recognize the character based on that quirk and will remember the part they played earlier.

So focusing your description can lead to overall stronger description, while letting your reader engage with the text more strongly by filling in a number of the blanks themselves. You can write less, and you get more out of it. It's a win-win.

Use Every Sense

If you're very new, you probably think description only extends to what you can see. This is simply not true, and you can make your description instantly stronger by employing the other main senses: hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

By using these senses, you give something else for your reader to pick up on and engage with the text. You're engaging the parts of their brain that remember these senses and a lot of them--such as their sense of smell--are stronger than their sense of sight. Not to mention, you can make foreign descriptions a lot more familiar through these senses--no reader has ever seen a snarling, bow-backed Crumpleskinner before, but they'll latch on to the vivid description of how the monster smells like wet socks and cat urine.

Ideally, you should strive to use at least one other sense in each scene, using all the strategies talked about above. Are these other senses ever important to the plot? Can any of them set the scene? How does pointing them out affect how we respond to your character? How can it be presented through action? When is the best time to include descriptions of the senses? Importantly, which kind of sensual description should you aim to pick up on above all others?

So brush up on your vocabulary when it comes to how things sound, how they feel against your skin, how they smell, how they taste, or what temperature they are, because you'll be using these as often as anything else.

Your Description Should Stand Out

There's no such thing as an original idea anymore, which means any description you have probably already exists somewhere else, in some form or another. But that doesn't mean you should limit yourself.

This is related to choosing specifics to describe, but goes a little further than that, because it comes with the actual invention of your setting and characters. Rather than creating bland, overused settings and characters, strive for something that is rarely been seen before. That means don't just go for the perfect-looking girl for your teenage protagonist, or the Gothic castle with lava for your villain's stronghold. Find an image that stands out, and run with it.

When I sit down to invent a setting, a character, or a species (yay writing Fantasy and Science Fiction!) I try and think of something that is visually appealing. In Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy, the evil Inquisitors have railway spikes driven through their eyes; Tolkien is a master of interesting settings in his works, whether they're hills with house-holes, or a city build into the side of a cliff, marked by the white tree growing near the top. These are not necessarily images that are new, but I couldn't say that for certainty; I don't know another story where the villains have railway spikes driven into their eyes (Tolkien gets a bit of a pass because he did a lot of what he did long before anyone else was doing it).

This carries into the smaller features of characters as well. Even if you can't think of completely original ideas (and no one is expecting you to, especially not at this point) try and be varied in your own work. Again, this sort of ties into the quirks separating characters, but in a broader level.

To illustrate, let's look at the Harry Potter series (I'm very conscious of how often I use Harry Potter for examples, but in my defence it's a series I know really well, and one that many people know really well, and good description and stand-out characters is one of Rowling's strongest suits)

Here's an overview of the three main characters's physical description:
-A scrawny boy with messy jet black hair, green eyes and glasses
-A stocky redhead with freckles and a stupid face
-A girl with curly brown hair and also, for half the series, notably uneven teeth.

As you can see, their physical descriptions are very different, and contrast with each other well. There's no mistaking one character for the other on description alone, to say nothing of their very different personalities. We can even expand this further with a few examples:

-A pale-faced smug boy with blonde hair
-A tall old man with a long silver beard, half-moon spectacles, and a long hooked nose
-A giant of a man with wild hair and beard and a recognizable brown fur coat
-A greasy, pale, hook-nosed professor with longer black hair
-A woman who can literally change her appearance at will and is never confused with other characters in the series.

P.S I recognize that a lot of what I focused on here were superfluous descriptions, especially of hair, but note that there's at least one description to each that is decidedly not what their hair is like or what their eye colour is.

This variety can also extend to Rowling's settings, whether they be a suburbia intent on perfection, a mish-mashed marketplace, a castle that plays by its own rules, or any of the other magical settings Harry Potter visits.

The point is, your description will stand out if what you're describing is unique, at the very least within your own story, and it therefore behooves you to go the extra mile when it comes to designing what your characters look like and what settings they explore.

The way you describe things will also be stronger if it's unique. We're not done with Harry Potter yet. Consider Dudley Dursley, who Rowling finds an interesting way to describe as fat almost every book. Whether he reminds Harry of a pig, takes up a whole side of the kitchen table by himself, or has achieved a goal of becoming wider than he is tall, Rowling will not stoop to just describing him by saying "Dudley was a fat boy" and neither should you.

-------


The best exercise that can be incredibly useful, for everything, is to read books and, more importantly, read them critically. How do other published authors describe things? Do you like the way they describe things, or does it put you to sleep? What about it do you like or dislike? How can you emulate that style (without completely ripping them off)? These are the kind of questions that will help you think more critically about your own writing, and any time you think critically about your own writing is a time when you're taking your craft seriously.

So there you have it: a relatively brief overview of some things to keep in mind when it comes time in your story to paint your reader a word picture. These aren't the only strategies, of course, but they're some that I find the most useful in my own writing.

If you found this guide helpful, please check out some of my other guides:
The Mega Guide To Prose
6 Ways to Cut Your Word Count
YWO Edits
Effective Openings
9 Questions to Improve Your Dialogue
5 Controversial Pieces of Advice
8 Ways to NOT make it as a writer
7 Essentials to Staying Safe as a Writer
How to TAKE a Critique
Is Your Idea Worth Continuing?
8 Poor Excuses For Poorer Writing
8 Tips to Improve Your Critiques
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Old 02-09-2015, 04:33 PM View Post #2 (Link)
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Originally Posted by Infinity_Man View Post
If someone seems to be crying, can the character not tell? This is doubly important if you have a narrator that's pulled back, such as a distant third person perspective or an omniscient narrator. Why would an objective omniscient narrator be vague about anything?
I can see why because if the pulled back narrator spoiled everything there is to know, they're be no suspense, no mystery, and no plot twists. Imagine if your example of the skull-scarred guy was going to be revealed by the narrator instead of the main character who should have gotten the revelation based on the scar? Besides that, this is an amazing guide. I'll be adding it in to my Guides' Gate thread in the Guides and Quick Tips section, ok?
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Old 02-09-2015, 06:00 PM View Post #3 (Link)
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Originally Posted by GeonamicWarrior View Post
I can see why because if the pulled back narrator spoiled everything there is to know, they're be no suspense, no mystery, and no plot twists. Imagine if your example of the skull-scarred guy was going to be revealed by the narrator instead of the main character who should have gotten the revelation based on the scar? Besides that, this is an amazing guide. I'll be adding it in to my Guides' Gate thread in the Guides and Quick Tips section, ok?
I'd say it depends on the type of omniscient narrator (I say omniscient, even though you didn't specify which kind of narrator, as that was the example you picked up on). A subjective omniscient narrator could have any reason to withhold that information. But, like I said, why would an objective omniscient narrator do so? I'm not saying an OON has to reveal everything, like what the girl down the street is thinking about, or what the main character's dog ate for lunch that day, but if something as important as "this character is a villain" was kept from me in an OON story, I'd feel cheated. That's the author purposely withholding information, despite the style of POV they've chosen, and that would just remind me I'm reading a story crafted by someone who wanted me to experience their plot twist.

On that note, there are good ways to write a plot twist, and bad ways to write a plot twist. If the plot twist only works because the narrator who, by definition, knows everything conveniently forgot to mention someone was a villain without a reason, it's not a rewarding plot twist. The best kind of plot twist, in my opinion, is the kind that, once revealed, we realize is obviously the only way the story could go, and we could have figured it out if we'd truly thought about it and put the pieces together. But if there's a piece missing because "the God narrator didn't mention it" then it's not that great a twist.

And I can totally imagine an omniscient narrator revealing the villain to the reader, and the kind of literary techniques we could get from that alone, like dramatic irony. But hell, if you think there'd be no tension then you obviously aren't picturing what I'm picturing, i.e scenes of the hero with his best friend, who is really the antagonist waiting for the right moment to kill him, as we watch the two of them move through the plot together, one completely unwitting to his coming demise, wondering when the shoe will drop. If you want an example of this, look at Season 2 of The Walking Dead television show: the audience knows that Shane has gone a little axe-crazy, to say the least, and wants Rick dead. Rick doesn't know that Shane wants him dead, and thinks they're both still friends. The writers of the show do an excellent job using the audience's knowledge to build tension whenever Shane and another unwitting character are in a room together. I've been told Frank Herbert's Dune is a great example of an effective omniscient narrator, especially one who reveals things like secret villains and whatnot, but I've not read it myself so I can't say for certain.

Knowing all and, unless they're a subjective omniscient, sharing all is kind of the point of the Omniscient narrator, and if you want mystery and plot twists, you probably chose the wrong POV for your story.
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Originally Posted by Infinity_Man View Post
I'd say it depends on the type of omniscient narrator (I say omniscient, even though you didn't specify which kind of narrator, as that was the example you picked up on). A subjective omniscient narrator could have any reason to withhold that information. But, like I said, why would an objective omniscient narrator do so? I'm not saying an OON has to reveal everything, like what the girl down the street is thinking about, or what the main character's dog ate for lunch that day, but if something as important as "this character is a villain" was kept from me in an OON story, I'd feel cheated. That's the author purposely withholding information, despite the style of POV they've chosen, and that would just remind me I'm reading a story crafted by someone who wanted me to experience their plot twist.
Yes, I can see why an objective omniscient narrator would do that, but I never, specifically, said that the OON would or should pull back critical info or show/tell everything happening; I just said pulled back narrator. I should have been a little more clear by saying it was a subjective omniscient narrator, so sorry about that.

And I can totally imagine an omniscient narrator revealing the villain to the reader, and the kind of literary techniques we could get from that alone, like dramatic irony. But hell, if you think there'd be no tension then you obviously aren't picturing what I'm picturing, i.e scenes of the hero with his best friend, who is really the antagonist waiting for the right moment to kill him, as we watch the two of them move through the plot together, one completely unwitting to his coming demise, wondering when the shoe will drop. If you want an example of this, look at Season 2 of The Walking Dead television show: the audience knows that Shane has gone a little axe-crazy, to say the least, and wants Rick dead. Rick doesn't know that Shane wants him dead, and thinks they're both still friends. The writers of the show do an excellent job using the audience's knowledge to build tension whenever Shane and another unwitting character are in a room together.
I do understand dramatic irony and how it'd work with revealing info like that to the audience sooner than later, but I guess I just have a preference against having too much dramatic irony. I mean, if I can predict what will happen because I've been given so much info, I can make up the rest of the story without even needing to read the rest. It makes me feel detached from the story itself in a way.
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