Today’s question is: Who knows what, and when?
Sometimes concepts from my day job cross-over into my writing. This week another one cropped up – The Johari Window.
It’s often used for improving communication, team building, and personal development. I think it also has a direct application to creative writing:
The four-panes of the window map out the information that is known to an individual and/or to others. Or, in the case of fiction, what is know to a character and what is know to the reader. It is a simple square divided into four quadrants, as so:
- The things that known to both the reader and the character: Known as the open window
- Things that are known to the reader but NOT the character: I call this the secret window
- Things that are known by the character but not to the reader: I think of this as the mirrored window (those on the outside can’t see in)
- Things that are known by neither the reader nor the character: I like to think of this as the dirty window
1. The Open Window
The Open Window starts off pretty much non-existant, since when you open a book you have no information about the character. Some books immediately start trying to help you out with this:
“Jenny ran her long fingers through her blonde hair as she studied her tall, slender frame in the mirror”.
That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but that’s the writer pulling down the sash, pretty brutally. Of course, increasing what a reader knows can be done much more subtly, through dialogue, clues, the character’s actions and through a drip-feed of pertinent information. Even if you feel you know your character well, the reader’s intimacy with the character should increase gradually over time.
2. The Secret Window
In the secret window, the reader has information that the character does not. This can be simple information (Jenny is being stalked!), or can involve deep issues which the character can’t face, and yet can be seen by others. For example the reader sees Jenny’s drinking habits and realise she is an alcoholic, but Jenny has not understood this herself. Information kept in this window can be used to build tension (as with the stalker), or empathy, making the reader want to reach out and help the character…
3. The Mirrored Window
This is information that the character knows about him/herself that readers do not. Perhaps she lost her parents in an accident, perhaps she is really a man. Perhaps she likes chips for tea. Perhaps she lied when she said she loved Geoff. The writer will choose how much of this information to share with the reader throughout the story, but the information will always affect the character’s actions.
4. The Dirty Window
The reader doesn’t know, the character doesn’t know, so who does know? Ah yes, that would be you, the author. For example, Jenny is pregnant, but she has no idea. Or she is courageous but has not yet had a chance to prove it. Or, subconsciously, she still not forgiven her father for not taking her to the circus in 1975. Information in this square drives your character’s actions and through character development and plotting, more information becomes known to the character herself.
So at the end of the story, the open window is bigger and the others have shrunk. We feel like we’ve got to know the character better, and the character has grown as a person. Critically, though, the other windows have not vanished all together. If we want to write a sequel, maybe Jenny will still be unaware she has a stalker, and unless it’s really important to the plot, we may never find out that Jenny likes chips for tea.
Keeping track of who knows what is particularly important during the editing stage of writing a novel, when whole chunks of action can get moved around. What do you think, could using this idea help?