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Well, this is very informative.

Scrapbook Stories, Epistolary Novels and other works of the kind which make heavy use of Fictional Documents will almost inevitably run into the problem of how to avoid the Fictional Document giving away too much information. Supposing the novel in question is a Cosmic Horror Story and the Fictional Document refers to Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, or Brown Notes which supposedly cause the reader to Go Mad From the Revelation. Obviously, few writers are skilled enough to actually compose such a Brown Note, so including the Brown Note in the text of the Fictional Document itself is out of the question. But the writer still needs to use the Fictional Document to get vital plot information across. How does the writer get out of this quandary?

Simple! Have the author of the fictional document go over the offending part of the document with a felt-tip pen.

This trope refers to cases in which Fictional Documents are damaged in a way which is particularly convenient for the author, whether by escaping the scenario described above, avoiding giving away plot twists prematurely or simply avoiding referring to a particular character by name.

It can also be used when the document is not actually damaged, but the character reading it gets interrupted in the course of doing so, thus preventing the character (and the reader) from discovering important information.

This is primarily a literary trope, but can pop up in any work which features Fictional Documents.

In cases like the first example, it can be a blazingly unsubtle example of Take Our Word for It. Commonly found (of course) in Scrapbook Stories and other works which make use of Fictional Documents. Can be justified via the Literary Agent Hypothesis. Sister Trope to His Name Is. Plot-Based Voice Cancellation achieves the same effect, but with sound, while Plot Based Photograph Obfuscation does it with photographs. Censor Box is probably the closest equivalent in visual media. Compare to That Was the Last Entry and Apocalyptic Log. Subtrope of Lost in Transmission.



  • In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Miss Price sees Mr. Brown about a spell book. She gets it and reads about the Substitutiary Locomotion spell, but the part where it talks about the incantation used to activate the spell is on a page that got torn out of the book. The group had to go to Portobello Road to look for it.
  • In Event Horizon, the ship receives part of a signal from the titular vessel containing a message in Latin. As the signal is partly corrupted, they initially take the message to be "Liberate me" - "save me". Upon acquiring the full signal and inspecting it closer, they find that the message is actually "Liberate tutemet ex infernis" - "Save yourselves from Hell.


  • Happens throughout House of Leaves, such as by one of the characters spilling ink on a document or something like that. Possibly in an effort to justify the use of this trope, parts of the fictional documents which aren't vital to the plot also get damaged, re[]lting in te[]t that lo[]s like thi[]. Additionally, sometimes the characters do this on purpose precisely because they fear the reader being driven mad by what they might read.
  • Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, one of the side stories to A Series of Unfortunate Events, makes heavy use of this.
  • The Janson Directive, a Robert Ludlum novel, makes use of this to avoid giving away the name of the villain in official letters concerning him.
  • One of the most famous examples occurs in Nineteen Eighty-Four, when Winston is reading a book which explains the entire political philosophy of Ingsoc and is just about to learn the motivations behind the Party's barbaric totalitarian system - upon which he falls fast asleep, much to the reader's frustration.
  • Near the beginning of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Harry finds a letter from one of his parents which mentions Dumbledore, and hints at a surprising revelation about his past. However, the bottom of the letter has been torn off. He finds out much later that the revelation would have been of some use to him at the time, and that it was removed for reasons completely unrelated to any desire to keep it from him.
  • There's a Peter Straub thriller called The Throat where the protagonist, who is looking for a murderer, finds a scrap of paper with a name and a town written on it, only the town name is slightly damaged and looks like "Alle_town". The protagonist misreads it as Allentown, which leads him to entirely the wrong man; the real murderer was in Allertown.
  • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut, has a distant cousin of Mr. Rosewater reading his family history only to discover that the last pages were eaten by maggots.
  • Sets off the plot in Pick Your Victim: a newspaper article identifies a murderer, but the parts naming the victim are left out.

Live Action TV

  • In an episode of The Twilight Zone an alien brings a message to the people of Earth. It gets killed and the message burned. Then someone reads the message, which is something like, "As a symbol of our friendship we offer the following, a cure for all forms of cancer." The rest is burned away.
  • The government documents that Michael does manage to get his hands on are these. It fuels the Myth Arc to get rid of the Burn Notice.

Web Original

Western Animation

  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zhao burned away references to The Day Of Black Sun, and indeed, any references to the Fire Nation at all in Wan Shi Ton's library (which served as the last straw for the spirit, and caused him to become hostile to humans).