Recently my main writing project has been revising and restructuring my novel draft, with a particular eye on the release of information—both to the reader and between characters. So, although Hannah Tinti’s new novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley and the Broadway adaptation of Groundhog Day feel about as different as possible in most ways, they struck me as narrative soulmates in that they share a dramatic keystone: the eccentric release of information, with some characters vastly more in the know than others. In Tinti’s book, Loo Hawley is constantly investigating her own past and her family’s, with the reader usually just far enough ahead to ache for her—though sometimes blindsided beside her. In Groundhog Day, of course, Phil Connors has an almost infinite informational advantage over the other characters—but is missing the one quotidian ability they all (apparently) still have, to move into the future. This ebb and flow of information makes works generic chimeras—is Twelve Lives a family drama, a bloody thriller, a mystery? Is Groundhog Day sci-fi or rom-com? (In my experience, movie rental and streaming services have a hell of a time fitting the film into their taxonomies.) As an additional mobius-strip categorization, both lead double-lives as loving tributes/burn tracks on small-town America.
Plenty of plotted narratives try to hinge on the artful release of information, so Twelve Lives and Groundhog Day are notable mostly for how well they both succeed. In each case the (im)balance of information gives us suspense and yearning, allies the audience with a character. Twelve Lives and Groundhog Day each find their respective balance points—and know exactly where on the spectrum of information/context to place the reader. Which character is our audience surrogate? (In the works that succeed the most with me, the answer to this changes unexpectedly. The shift from Loo to Samuel, from Phil to Rita—a successful POV change gets the audience deeply invested in the story before they’ve realized what’s happening.) I think the only constant is that “our character” needs to be someone struggling to solve a mystery, answer a question—whether expert or sap; whether the other characters have more information or less.
This dynamic can also go sour in terms of power, characterization, the balance of relationships—the tone or terms of a story can shift unintentionally if one character has vastly more agency or information, and thus more control. Of course this is only a “problem” if it isn’t billed as one—and it’s an issue deftly avoided in Groundhog Day, which on paper is a rom-com about one partner having thousands of times more information than the other. Theoretically it should be creepy, but it isn’t—because of the moral journey we see Phil take, and because Rita spearheads two of the best and deepest songs in the show. There’s a narrative sleight of hand—we fall in love with both Rita and Phil individually, so we accept when the story pushes them together. Our love bridges the logistical gap.
We bridge that same (and yet a very different) gap in Twelve Lives—a book structured around mysteries and secrets, in which nobody but the reader ends up with all the information. The absence of a full cathartic revelation between characters could feel like a failure, a lack of payoff—but there’s that same poignancy (again, very differently executed) making the information gap the soul of the story rather than a weakness. In these works and others like them, the reader/audience becomes a load-bearing part of the narrative itself—and it’s delightful to get so caught up.