A canon is a piece of contrapuntal music where first one voice performs a melody, and other voices perform the same melody, entering at specific intervals. “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is a well-known canon.
A fugue is similar, with one voice performing a melody, but when other voices join, the melody is “developed.” It may start on a different note, be inverted, reversed, ornamented, etc.
In writing, I want to emulate the fugue, not the canon.
It’s the art of dribbling out information to your reader, of telling her more and more, but withholding enough to keep her interested. There has been a spate of television series lately that have relied heavily on this technique (with varying degrees of success) such as “Lost,” “The Nine,” and “Awake.” The key to this technique is the constant IV-drip of “meta-plot” whereby the overarching mystery that defines the series is slowly revealed, sometimes agonizingly so.
Where these shows succeed or fail is in the rate of delivery of new information. Each time a bit of information comes out, it recapitulates the “melody” but develops it a little more. Dole these dollops of data out too slowly and viewers get frustrated and tune out. Pump the information into every episode and you risk building an overly complex meta-plot. I mean, by the time “X-Files” went off the air, did anyone follow what was going on? I lost track of the types of aliens at about five.
And so, with a novel, I want to tell the reader what’s going on, but not too much so that she guesses it all and grows bored, or can’t see where we’re going and gets frustrated. If done right, whenever the reader says, “Hey, wait a minute…what about ?”, she should be about a page away from the answer.
Mostly, I do this by being ultra-conservative with my exposition. But by contrast, I can’t hold back too much. At all costs, I want to avoid those “As you know, Bob…” moments where I have to explain a page of backstory just to bring the reader up to speed.
This isn’t a spreadsheet-type task. I could seriously overthink this if I let myself. It’s something I have to be aware of, but I really don’t bother checking for it until I’m in edit mode. Once I’m editing, I can look at each chapter and see if I’ve introduced something new (character, setting, plot element) or if I’ve referred to something old (backstory, previous books, historical context). I assume that my readers haven’t done as much research into the subject as I have, and I also assume that they don’t want to. So, just enough detail, don’t overwhelm the flow of the prose.
We hit a few of these items in First Reader’s comments on FC:V. It turns out that <gasp> First Reader didn’t reread the first four books before starting FC:V. Of course, I had, so all those elements and details were pretty fresh in my mind, but First Reader got to one reference (the bridge, from FC:II) and didn’t remember the specifics.
So, a little bit of information each time, building, building, until the whole starts to come into view.