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I was watching TV the other night when I was reminded how useful character behavior is for guiding viewers (or readers) down the path of the author’s choosing. The show was Suits, and the scene involved two characters talking. One of them (Lewis) was suffering from the psychological effects of having been mugged a few days earlier, and the other (Samantha) was helping him deal with it, revealing that she had also been mugged at some time in the past (apparently before she arrived as a character on the show). They both share the same boss (Robert). Here’s the relevant snippet of dialogue:
Samantha: The same thing that happened to you, happened to me. And when it did, Robert was there for me. And I'm going to be there for you.
Lewis (confused): I'm sorry. What do you mean, he was there for you?
Samantha: It's not important. The important thing is that you’re going to learn self-defense. And I’m going to teach you.
Now what's so significant about this exchange, you ask? It was Lewis's response. You see, the audience (and Lewis) already knew Samantha had been working with, and been friends with, her boss for years before she arrived on this show, so the idea that Robert had been “there for her" made perfect sense. Nothing out of the ordinary. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but then Lewis challenged her on that point, and suddenly I wondered if there was some hidden meaning in her words, something that might surface again in a later episode. Of course, I could be totally off on this, but I doubt it. The show’s writers are good, and having a character question something is a common trick for signaling viewers/readers that they should be questioning it too.
But this trick isn’t limited to foreshadowing. It’s an excellent way of allowing the writer to lead the reader down the desired emotional path. Showing the POV character’s response to an event is the writer’s way of telling the reader how they should respond. If something happens that causes your MC to be sad, for example, then you must show them being sad, either through their actions or via internal thoughts. Don’t just set up the situation and expect the reader to figure it out on their own. Even if you’re absolutely, totally, positively sure the reader would know the character is sad, show it anyway. Trust me, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my critique group, it’s to never underestimate a reader’s ability to come up with alternative explanations for story events when left to their own devices. These days, readers are so accustomed to having the character’s actions and interior thoughts guide them down the appropriate story path that when the author skimps on them, the readers become lost.
How many times have you seen a movie character notice, or begin to question, some small detail, but before they have a chance to follow up, something distracts them and they forget all about that detail, which later turns out to have been an important clue. The purpose of that scene wasn’t to show the character failing to figure out the answer, it a signal to the viewer as to where they should be paying attention. Of course, writers sometimes use this trick to deliberately misdirect the reader away from the real clue, but that’s a topic for another discussion.
It’s a dirty little secret, but good writers lead their readers by the nose all the way through a story. The trick is to do it subtly enough the readers’ noses aren’t sore by the time they reach the final page.