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A little thing about using journals and [REDACTED] in your stories

Updated: May 5, 2022

This data has been expurged, censored, [REDACTED]

These are a staple of mysteries stories, be it horror, SCP-Foundation, Association of Ishtar, or spy thrillers containing segments of secret documents.

To redact something can be an interesting tool, but it is also a quick cop-out often used by writers so they don't have to come up with names or write descriptions. Or give the illusion there is a mystery, while there isn't any.

What is even the point of redacting parts of your story? It sounds rather counter-intuitive when you think about it.

There are two reasons to blank out. text To add realism, and thus adding to the immersion into the story. This creates the illusion the reader is an investigator, like in an RPG.

This speaks for itself right. Sensitive and personal information like locations and names. Covert or illegal actions taken. In some cases 'personal opinions'. This is something that Dutch bureaucrats do where they give you an entirely redacted page because, for example, the formulation of a policy was 'Just their opinion' and therefore isn't public information.

Simple enough, right? Well, this approach is also a trap. But more on that later.

To stick with the investigator's motive, to create the aforementioned immersion the writer needs to create a mystery for the investigator to resolve. In this situation, the redacted text is a puzzle piece the reader requires to complete the story in its head. But to connect the dots, the dots need to be there. So you must write what story elements go where. Personally, I find it hard to say what elements need to be present. Every time I think I include too few elements or leave too many threads unresolved my proofreaders thinks it's fine.

But as a reader myself, nothing annoys me more than the miss-use of the [Redacted] trope.

I saw this example.

This is a case of adding the word REDACTED for its own sake. First of all, why is the soldier allowed to say where he is stationed up to the distance from Death Valley?

It reminds me of a joke from the movie Airplane. (After looking up the clip it is more similar than I remembered).

Also, it is clear the soldier is not allowed to talk about the threat, so why mention it? This could easily be solved by rephrasing the sentence. ""

In my estimation, based on this segment, the writer wanted to establish some facts. This soldier has a family, he is in Death Valley and there is something out there.

Apparently, the guy is also very literate. He opened his letter just like a fiction writer at the start of a stor-ooohh.

Admittingly, I don't write a lot of letters, but I do write a lot of stories. The first line is how 'we' are trained to start fiction.

This is what I meant that an attempt at realism can be a trap because it goes against some of the natural tendencies that writers develop. Realistic documents are very BORING. They go into extreme detail and use vague language. In personal correspondence, people complain about stuff that doesn't matter and comment on each other's previous statements and make non-sensible in-jokes. It might start with something like "Thanks for the diapers Jane. I'm sure I and the boys can put them to good use." and end with something like "PS. If I see Bob's dog on the lawn one more time abusing our garden gnomes, I swear I'll sell it to that Korea restaurant." Personally, I am already more intrigued. The point is the document makes you go. "Yup, a real person wrote this." More importantly, this document and its content are a thing that exists in that world. It should be as real as an actual letter to a loved one, or an official document pulled straight from a file. So, it requires a number of delicate touches.

Now, I will write a separate piece on using journals as a narrative device. My point is that blanked-out text is something that needs to be used strategically.

Redacting can achieve a few things. It creates the illusion the text is an official document. The second however is that it is a piece of visual storytelling. This is not often talked about, but the layout of a text is also a piece of the story. Official letters have certain structure readers recognize. In that situation, it might be better to include a document as a .jpg with signature, maybe a coffee stain. The same goes for newspaper articles.

That being said, you need to be aware of the motive why some are blanked out. If you are writing correspondence about a strategic situation, what's the point of blanking out all locations. Does it make it realistic, no? Is it more immersive? No. Does it add anything to the story? You blanked everything out, so it literally contains no information beyond stuff is happing. So, no!

The best redactions are when the reader gets a nasty feeling. Like is my story C-44

A specimen was brought back from Plane ██ by associates after the expedition was aborted due to an encounter with a C-44 swarm patrolling the area surroinding the Rift. The specimen was inactive when handed to Dr. Vermouth for investigation.
14 days into the research on the specimen, the C-44 unit activated during dismanteling and attacked Dr. Brandy. ██████████ ██████████████████████████████████████████ ███ Dr. Brandy fell to the ground with the C-44 contraption latched to her head. Staff attempted to help, but Dr. Brandy's body came back to life and attacked those present. During the struggle, Dr. Brandy, from now on referred to as S-44, appeared to have superior strength and extreme resistance to pain. When a staff member defended himself with a powertool she didn’t even flinch when he █████████████████. Finally, three staff members overpowered S-44 and ████████████. S-44 did not survive the extraction procedure.

Not the best quality example, still there are some good things about it. First of all the hint that the Association doesn't want the reader/aka investigator to know where C-44 came from. Why doesn't the Association want people to know about it?

The other part is the attack by C-44. Obviously, it hides the actions that C-44 did to the poor doctor. The abilities of C-44 are described earlier in the story, so the reader can imagine what happened. Also, describing what happened to one own staff in gory detail is was probably not appreciated.

For the reader, however, they themselves get to fill in the blanks with the information they have.

The point of this is that every blank has a motivation or story behind it... No pun intended.

But now for the best way to use blank-out text. You start by

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████████████████████████████████████ ██████████ ██████████████ ██████████ ███ ██████████ And that is why you should buy my novel The Wrench in the Machine.

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