Friday, January 13, 2012

Pacing your reveals: The Hero and The Mentor

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of the Hero's Journey.

I enjoy this framework because when brainstorming my current wip, I can easily draw parallels to stories such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Star Wars (the latter one being an almost text book example).

For quick reference, here is the hero/mentor relationship as I see them (you may disagree with some of the mentors):
Harry and Dumbledore, HBP

Frodo and Gandalf
Harry and Dumbledore
Luke and Obi-Wan

In my MG adventure story, my main character (hero) first refused the call and finally accepted the challenge. Yet, as I go through and rework some scenes based on comments from my writing group, they all expressed a common concern:

Why isn't Strix (mentor) telling David (MC) this information sooner? 
Why is Strix withholding so much information?

My initial reaction to this was something like, "Because, he can't tell David everything right away!"

Imagine how different LoTR would be if Gandalf told Frodo all his secrets before leaving The Shire? Or if Obi-Wan told Luke about his father when they first met? Or if Dumbledore told Harry about the Horcruxes in book two?

But once my brain stopped pointing out all these examples, I came back to what my writing group was actually saying. My mentor was keeping too much information from my main character, and therefore, the reader. They felt the story would have a stronger pull if the readers weren't left in the dark so often.

This is my current struggle: finding a balance between revealing information--breadcrumbs, if you will--but not showing my hand too soon.

Anyone else have trouble with reveals? Or can you think of a hero/mentor relationship where the mentor shared everything up front? 

To the comments!


  1. Not a mentor-grasshopper one. I do remember Kyle Reese dumping everything on Sarah Conner in Terminator. She didn't take it well.

  2. Hee. Funny you say that; I've got the opposite comments from betas. Not all of them, but a couple have commented that they feel the MC should have to work harder (and it should therefore take longer) to get information. And it's true that she gets told a lot of stuff in the early going... but that's not what the story is about; it's not about her discovery of this information, it's about what she does once she knows it. So it's better that it's put all out there early.

    As for your situation, maybe the key is knowing /why/ your mentor withholds information. If he's doing it just because it makes the plot stronger if he doesn't reveal all right away, that's going to frustrate readers. But if he's got a good, solid reason not to tell the MC right away, readers will be on board with that. Maybe it's simply along the lines of waiting until the MC is emotionally ready to handle the information (eg. Harry and the horcruxes). Maybe it's a desire not to confuse the MC or muddy their resolve with extraneous information (Frodo and Gandalf). Maybe he's got some ulterior motives of his own. But there needs to be a reason.

    I think the main thing is, when the mentor finally reveals the information to the MC, you should also include the reason why he withheld it. That way, instead of your reader saying, "Why didn't you tell him this earlier, you bastard??" they'll say "Why didn't you tell him this earlier?? Oh. Oh, I see. Well, I guess that makes sense."

    1. You just made my mind explode with thoughts and questions, in a good way.

      "maybe the key is knowing /why/ your mentor withholds information" <-- YES! This. Now I have to go attack this puzzle from a whole new perspective. If you hear me grumbling under my breath towards you, it's all good. Promise. ;)

    2. I'm so glad it was helpful! I learn something (often several somethings) with each novel I write, and my primary lesson this time around was regarding secondary character motivation. I think we've all heard the thing about every character wants something, even if it's only a glass of water, but I don't think I'd really thought through just to what extent that applies. Good luck with it!

  3. In LOTR, the thing is all the information that is relevant to the story is revealed fairly early. The only thing that Gandalf keeps to himself is his true nature and honestly that is neither any of Frodo's business nor relevant to him and his quest in any way. (I don't think it's ever really explained in LOTR because it doesn't really matter.) Gandalf tells Frodo most of what he knows as soon as its important to do so (in the chapter A Shadow of the Past) and the rest is told as soon as the Hobbits get to Rivendell by the persons who have first hand experience with the information.

    I don't think anything is really held back at all in LOTR. Maybe that's why I like it so much. I can't help feeling that the only real, good reason for the Mentor to withhold information is so that the author can create artificial suspense. That annoys me. I forgive Rowling for doing it because the story, world and characters are all so, so awesome. And because she comes up with a fairly good reason for doing it. That's the key, I guess.

    My WIP currently involves a mentor character telling a hero character the entire story of the world that is relevant and important for the hero character to discover an important truth that the mentor character does not know. This happens over the course of several books. (The stories themselves are not actually "told" be the mentor but actually dramatized and are the meat of each volume. The mentor/hero character being featured in a framing device to each story.)

    1. "I can't help feeling that the only real, good reason for the Mentor to withhold information is so that the author can create artificial suspense."

      Exactly, and it annoys the snot out of me, too. But on the other hand, I feel like if done well, it's a very useful pacing/tension strategy. And therein lies the problem. Like Seabrooke said above, it's all about the Mentor's reason/motivation.

      As for my LoTR reference, it wasn't until I read your post that I realized I was just picturing the movie and not the books. D'oh! I was specifically thinking about Gandalf leading them into the mountian/mines of Moria. First, there was the huge monster, and second, he finally told Frodo about Smeagol after Frodo realized they were being followed. I honestly don't know how that's played out in the book, so thank you for reminding me of this incredibly important distinction!

    2. I don't remember the book LOTR very well; I read it just before the first movie came out. But I seem to recall that all Gandalf told Frodo, at first, was that the Ring couldn't stay in the Shire. He was to take it to whatever the next town over was called and he'll meet them there. Frodo said, okay, easy enough. Then they get there and Gandalf doesn't arrive and there're dark riders after them and some strange ranger says he'll take them on to Rivendell, where they'll be safe. Frodo doesn't actually find out the truth about the ring until he gets to Rivendell - and even then, he doesn't know the *whole* truth. Gandalf knows, of course, but doesn't tell him, because he sees that it must be Frodo who does this thing, and if he tells Frodo the truth, Frodo may not agree to do it. If Frodo could look forward and see the hobbit he'd become by the time he reaches Mount Doom, would he still sign on?

      In the last book, Harry finds out through Snape's memories the reason that Dumbledore kept Harry in the dark about the last horcrux being Harry himself. Dumbledore says to Snape, "Harry must not know, not until the last moment, not until it is necessary, otherwise how could he have the strength to do what must be done?" Half a page later, Dumbledore adds, "We have protected him because it has been essential to teach him, to raise him, to let him try his strength."

    3. Seabrooke, I think you're remembering the movies, not the book, which is significantly different.

      In the novel Fellowship of the Ring, the entire truth about the ring is revealed. Gandalf tells Frodo its nature in his Hobbit hole in the Shire. And Frodo receives the full story of its making and history in Rivendell. One thing to remember though is that it was not the intent of Gandalf or anyone that Frodo should carry the ring beyond Rivendell. His job was just to get it there. But it was Frodo who stepped forward to volunteer to take it farther and when he did so he had all the information about Sauron and the ring. He made the right choice even though he knew what was likely to happen to him.

      That's why I don't quite feel satisfied with the reasoning that Rowling gives Dumbledore. Harry is not given the chance to make the right choices along the way because he's never told anything. They just assume that he wouldn't if he had the information. That is, in my opinion, a cop out on the part of the author. But, as I said, I forgive her because the books really are awesome.

  4. This is really tough for a lot of writers. The slow-drip of info versus the info dump. Figuring out that perfect balance is really tough, but luckily you have a writing group to help you sort it out. Good luck!

  5. I was thinking about this topic a bit last night and came to the conclusion that keeping information away from the hero is not really part of the Mentor's role. But I think modern storytellers have gotten the idea that it is. That the Mentor is only supposed to slowly dole out little bits of what the hero needs to know as the story progresses. I think the problem is that they're projecting themselves into the Mentor. But the Mentor is not the author, the arbiter of how the story progresses. They have their own function and that is to inform, advise, counsel, teach and aid the hero. They are not there to play mind games.

    I would really like to see fiction move away from the "Ha ha ha! I'm your mentor, but don't expect me to actually answer any of your questions!" cliche and make the mentor actually effective again.

    Dumbledore wasn't bad, per se, but he still falls into the cliche by controlling so much of the knowledge that the plot depends on and only letting it be slowly revealed over the course of 7 books. Why? Because Rowling wanted the series to be 7 books long.

    I may be biased, but I think Gandalf is the perfect mentor. Just don't judge him by the movies! ;)

    1. Even if I never blog again (which I will), this single entry has given me so much to consider. In reading about the Hero's Journey, I immediately locked my head into the token "Mentor" roles like the three I listed about. But I didn't stop to think about what that role truly meant. It's more than an elderly white man who knows the ropes and leads our Hero down the Right path. And yes, I wonder if authors have grown comfortable using the Mentor as a storytelling device instead of an actual MENTOR.

      Trying to think about my genre specifically (MG), I think of Chiron in the Percy Jackson books. I found his character infuriating specifically due to the LACK of information (and apparent lack of motivation for keeping info) he told the Hero.

      I'm really going to have to think some more about the Hero's Journey in MG books. Per your comment above, I need to make sure I'm at least giving my Hero the chance to make the right decisions.


    2. I think Sarah actually does have a good point about the role of the mentor.

      In my favorite manga, Sailor Moon, her mentor, Luna tells her everything *she* knows up front. There is still a lot of mystery because Luna herself does not know everything. But when she does figure something out, she tells Usagi (Sailor Moon) right away.

      I guess Luna isn't your typical modern day mentor though. She's clearly a mentor, as her role is to guide and teach Usagi how to become a better warrior. But in a lot of ways, she can be just as in the dark as Usagi.

    3. Oh, Cookie... I like the idea that the Mentor DOESN'T know everything and learns some things along w/the MC. Man, so much food for thought on this topic. I can't tell you all how many sheets of paper I've filled in my book notebook since Friday! Thanks!

  6. I'm glad someone mentioned it, because in my stories the people who could be perceived as mentors frequently have NO CLUE what's going on, even though they are trying to play the mentor role for various reasons: sense of duty, obligation, etc. I like the idea that there is still so much more to discover about the person who is supposed to know it all.

  7. Love all the different possibilities people have been discussing here! In my WIP, the mentor is also the MC's mother, which creates further tension because a) the mentor doesn't know everything and b) she has a very real motivation to NOT share things that would set her daughter on this dangerous path.

    My MC knows her mother is withholding, but doesn't know what or why. She's completely frustrated by this, and it affects their relationship throughout the series.

  8. i'm usually pretty good with pacing my reveals. Or at least i think i am. Well, no one's ever complained about them so that's what i'm going with.
    Another MG Hero's Journey series, at least for the first couple ones, are the Ranger's Apprentice. Which i LURVE, btw

    1. I listened to the first Ranger's Apprentice book on cd and enjoyed it, but kind of forgot about the story after... Maybe I should take a look at book two.

      I started reading The 39 Clues books and enjoyed them (super quick MG read), but I felt th story wasn't giving enough information to keep me interested. But I loved both the story concept and how the books were written so I might go back to those as well.


I love getting comments. They're as much fun as getting real snail mail. So please, chime in and tell me what you think!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...