Withholding Information Doesn’t Create Suspense in Every Situation

2015-06-03 Suspension Bridge 01Sometimes withholding information creates suspense. But only under certain circumstances. In other circumstances, withholding information only creates frustration for the reader. What’s the difference? Is there a format or key writers can follow?

How to Drive Your Reader Crazy

1. I Know Something You Don’t!

2015-06-03 Suspension Bridge 05The easiest way to drive your readers crazy is to let them know that you – the author – know something, but you’re not about to let them in on it.

She looked over her shoulder and gasped. No, it couldn’t be. She had to tell Andrew, before it was too late. 

What did she see? If we don’t find out until one hundred pages later, we’re going to be furious. Obviously, there are a few cases where this scenario is hard to avoid – but you don’t have to rub it in by doing it all the time.

2. I Could Tell You, but Then I’d Have to Shoot You 

2015-06-03 Ski LiftAnother way to aggravate your readers is to hint at something that’s obviously important, while stoically telling them nothing.

Something she saw in the room stirred a memory. One she wanted desperately to forget. She shoved it down into the deepest part of her soul. 

[20 pages later … ]

She saw it again – the thing that triggered her memory. Her stomach twisted in knots, but she refused to dwell on it. She was past that, now.

[15 pages later … ]

No, no, no, there it was. It carried her back to that awful day yet again. Would she ever be over it? 

The problem is when you keep hinting at this important whatever-it-is, without adding any real clues as to the nature of the secret. The reader will yell at the page, “So what does she remember and what keeps triggering it!” You, the author, obviously don’t want to clue them in too early. But you can go overkill by telling them nothing.

If you’re really in the mood to torture someone, you can do this across multiple characters.

3. I Have a Deadly Secret

2015-06-03 Suspension Bridge 04Every character should have a secret – something he’d prefer everyone else not to know. But how you present that secret makes a big difference.

He could never let her know what was in his past.

[30 pages later … ]

Should he tell her? No. She’d never look him in the eye again. 

[Near the climax … ]

He wanted desperately for her to know everything about him. But at what cost? 

I’m annoyed just writing that. Did he rob a bank? Did he kill his mother? Did he flunk third-grade spelling? We have no idea whatsoever what kind of offense he’s hiding … and thus how important it really is.

How to Keep Your Reader Hanging on Every Word

2015-06-03 Suspension Bridge 03Suspense is created by withholding information. The trick is knowing what information to withhold. My rule of thumb? Share as much information as you can without giving it away. It’s kinda related to the best way to lie: Tell as much truth as possible. (Not that I’m encouraging you to go around telling lies. Wait. That’s what writing fiction is.)

She looked over her shoulder and gasped. The black car, headlights off, slunk down the street, then sped around a corner as soon as the driver knew he’d been spotted. The black fedora. The crisp white shirt and narrow tie. No, it couldn’t be. She had to tell Andrew, before it was too late. 

You can also include little bits and pieces that will give your reader some clue as to the nature of the secret.

The glass of water sitting in the window sill stirred a memory. One she wanted desperately to forget. She shoved it down into the deepest part of her soul. 

[20 pages later … ]

The flash of light. The memory again. Her stomach twisted in knots, but she refused to dwell on it. She was past that, now.

[15 pages later … ]

The glittering lights carried her back to that awful day yet again. Would she ever be over it? 

Now you know the awful memory is tied somehow to flickering light. And the reader’s interest is piqued. What kind of bad memory could be tied to something as innocent as light?

If you want to be really sneaky … share the information that is most likely to mislead your reader.

He could never let her know what was in his past. Nice young ladies didn’t court men with blood on their hands. 

[30 pages later … ]

Should he tell her? About his mother? What he did to her? No. She’d never look him in the eye again. 

[Near the climax … ]

He wanted desperately for her to know everything about him. But at what cost? “Lydia, my mother was the dictator of Ashkazan. I had her assasinated.” 

2015-06-03 Suspension Bridge 02As soon as you open up the vault and let your reader in on a few key facts – a few more than you may be comfortable sharing at first – you provide your reader with a little bit of fodder to let their imagination run rampant. (Admit it. You’re still trying to figure out the guy in the black car and the flickering light.) Mislead them a little bit in the process, and you’ll still be able to spring the stunning surprise on them in the end.

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