This is an odd rant, a mixture of in-story information and out-of-story information.
So, a few of the odder lines from Swinburne’s “Hymn of Man”:
The beautiful bird unbegotten that night brought forth without pain
In the fathomless years forgotten whereover the dead gods reign,
Was it love, life, godhead, or fate? we say the spirit is one
That moved on the dark to create out of darkness the stars and the sun.
Before the growth was the grower, and the seed ere the plant was sown;
But what was seed of the sower? and the grain of him, whence was it grown?
Foot after foot ye go back and travail and make yourselves mad;
Blind feet that feel for the track where highway is none to be had.
But, anyway. Some ideas.
1) Never overuse any one plot device to get information to the character.
This includes, but is not limited to: messengers, overhearing conversations (many authors are especially bad about that last), having someone blab information while drunk, finding out information by being in the right place at the right time, and so on. To a certain extent, these things can work, but used too often they openly smack of author manipulation and the hero always stumbling into things rather than working them out for himself.
Think of all the times that you’ve stumbled or nearly stumbled on two people talking. What are the chances that:
a) that conversation concerned you
b) that conversation was about something important concerning you
c) it had secrets in it that had been kept for years?
Not all that great, and less with every condition you add. And yet it happens all the time in fantasy. The hero just happens to overhear something about his past, about the evil plot of the nobles that he’s in the perfect position to stop, or about a prophecy that no one else knows about.
Consider how often your hero stumbles into something like this, compared to how often he manages to figure or find out something on his own. If you find yourself relying too much on one plot device, cut back. Alternatively, make sure the hero doesn’t automatically know what’s going on. A good depiction of this is in Martin’s A Game of Thrones; the character Arya overhears two men intriguing, but can’t make heads or tails of the conversation, though the reader might have more luck.
2) Conversely, don’t withhold too much information from your character.
This is one reason I am extremely wary of romances. Far too many of them depend on the Great Misunderstanding Plot. One character kisses another in thanks, and her lover sees it and assumes she’s being unfaithful- without actually knowing the circumstances, of course. Or one character has to leave on a dangerous mission and the other assumes he’s abandoning her. There are endless permutations of it, but the fact remains that the author is keeping information from the character, often in a very contrived way. For some reason, characters involved in the Great Misunderstanding Plot can never ever just talk, even if they’ve been shown as honest and straightforward up to that point. (Oh, wait, it’s not for no reason. It’s because the author requires it to happen. Here’s a hint: Find a better way to plot).
Other times, the author’s keeping information away from the character backfires not because it in itself is contrived, but because the hero’s figuring out some important secret or mystery without that information is contrived. This is the point at which characters appear to become superhuman, or Fox Mulder with no previous background for such a thing. Perhaps the author has successfully concealed the kinship between two religions, but the hero manages to figure it out anyway, even though he doesn’t know anything about the vital pieces of the puzzle. This leaves the reader flabbergasted. Why does the hero suddenly become supersmart just when the plot requires it? (Another question you know the answer to).
Keeping information from the heroes can certainly increase suspense, but at some point it should come out, and sooner rather than later if the heroes are the kinds of people who would naturally dig for it. Don’t sacrifice characterization to suspense or the Great Misunderstanding Plot.
3) Remember that most fantasy worlds don’t have global communication.
The only possible exception I can think of is a magical or telepathic network devoted solely to passing information, such as in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels, and even that will be less reliable than, say, e-mail. The information will have to pass through humans, who will become tired and make mistakes. Probably it costs money, and so areas that are mainly populated by hunters or farmers wouldn’t be able to afford them. Fantasy’s equivalent of “high technology” won’t be spread everywhere, most likely, just as our own technology isn’t.
The more common methods are messenger birds and couriers. Those take time to fly or ride the length of a continent, and still may not get there. For messenger birds, there are predators, a natural failure rate since the birds aren’t that intelligent, storms, and sometimes an enemy shooting them off course. The couriers can get robbed, attacked by enemies, lose their horses to too much riding, and so on.
All of this is a lengthy, complicated way of saying that it’s perfectly reasonable for people in other parts of the fantasy world not to know for days, weeks, or months what has happened in other places. They can fight battles after the war is technically ended (this happened in the Battle of New Orleans, which was fought after the ending of the War of 1812). They can take actions that seem perfectly reasonable based on their state of knowledge, such as proclaiming a character who is recently dead king. Don’t make them react as if they know everything the moment it happens, unless you have set up a speedy means of conveying knowledge, and these people would reasonably be part of that network.
4) Suspense can be built as easily by incomplete information as by lack of it or overabundance of it.
This is one problem when an amateur fantasy author tries to write a story with a mysterious prophecy at the center of it. Usually, he or she gives too much information, and a reader can easily figure out what’s going on. If the only suspense relies on the nature of the prophecy, the story becomes a bland coasting to the finish line. Of course the hero is the mysterious Eagle, of course the “river of blood” means he’ll fight a war, of course “the darkness in his bed” means he has an evil wife. Yawn. (This isn’t helped by the tendency to rely on other fantasy conventions, so that sometimes the reader can actually take knowledge from other, similar fantasy stories and use that to figure this one out).
Keeping all information away from the character can lead to the problems in point two, where the character is kept from the information by contrived means, or he figures it out in a burst of epiphany that also seems contrived.
What about incomplete information, though? Say your character is a scholar looking for more information on the mysterious prophecy. She finds a book with half the prophecy in it. The rest is scratched or burned out. If the author does it right, he or she teases the audience into reading on; the second half of the prophecy might be anything, after all. The suspense also builds. Who destroyed the second half, and why? Will they find out that the scholar is looking for it, and what will they do to her? Why leave the first half there?
Oh, yes. This leads to my next point.
5) Consider the motivation of those giving information to the heroes.
Amusingly enough, the characters often seem to spend more time thinking about this than the author does. The hero might recoil from the black-cloaked stranger who walks up and tells him that his life is in danger, wondering if this is a joke or if someone is trying to trick him. Of course, it usually doesn’t turn out to be a joke, and so that question is answered. The author often forgets to provide the black-cloaked stranger with any adequate motivation, though. Why does he want to warn the hero, particularly if he’s the enemy? If he’s a friend, why not give a more detailed and protective warning? It doesn’t make any sense. The same thing happens with the villain blabbing all about his plans to the heroes just before he tries to kill them.
Give your people who do reveal information an adequate motive. Please. Feeling superior to the hero and wanting to gloat are not adequate motivations, partially because they’re overused and partially because few villains are developed in the directions that would make it plausible: arrogant braggarts who take pleasure in seeing others’ eyes widen in wonder or awe. They often keep their plans secret from their own minions. Why are they blabbing about them to the heroes?
The same thing applies to information left behind. To return to the example in my fourth point, why in the world did whoever burned or scratched out half the prophecy leave the rest? Why not destroy the whole thing? The scholar might get suspicious about the loss in the book, but she would have much less to go on. There should be an excellent reason for the giving of information, particularly if it’s information harmful to the person giving it.
6) Try straight talking once in a while.
It’s amazing how many characters get snatched up in the Great Misunderstanding Plot or keeping secrets from each other who shouldn’t, seeing that they’re pretty blunt, honest, and not good at acting. Those are treated as virtues by the author. And yet, when they see the person they love kissing someone else, they either storm away, or storm in and then don’t give the person they love a chance to explain.
This might, possibly, work with characters whose solutions to problems are running away or closing off their emotions. Why in the world does it work with characters who are courageous, excellent fighters, and usually emotional? That kind of character as a hero is far more common than the cold or closed-off one, until the author requires it to be different.
Talking to someone else about something emotionally difficult can take great courage, but the emotional turmoil that the characters go through otherwise is also difficult (and, it seems to me, has far more of a tendency to become cliched). Try having your characters react like adults, not like teenagers or children, especially if they’ve reacted like adults through most of the story. Conversations add depth to their characters and depth to the story, far more than the angst and avoidance of basic conversation that takes over otherwise.
Hmmm. Probably some repeated information in here. But it does irritate me how many times suspense is only aided by contrivance, not clever plotting.