I'd like to welcome Michael Kinn to the blog today to share some tips and insights withholding information from your reader--and why keeping secrets to increase tension and suspense rarely works.
Michael makes up stuff as a scientist, a storyteller and a writer, any combination of which sets his creative juices flowing. He loves the ocean, writes under the influence of green tea and finds life a breeze compared to negotiating his teenagers’ freedom charters. Michael is addicted to great stories and in dire need of extra lives.
Take it away Michael...
Your novel is ready. Your bff/parents/partner and their dog read your first chapter. They luuuuves it. Time for the online crit.
Comments roll in. Post after post. A few sing your praises. They’re first time posters, just like you. Most don’t seem to get your work. They send in daft questions. So you fire off a revision. And another.
They still don’t get it.
Thanks to the critters, your grammar is flawless (well, mostly), you’ve got show-versus-tell down (no one dozed off) and you’ve even killed your darlings (all but that extra precious one).
And still the questions roll in. You’re starting to feel like you’re bringing a magic show to the CSI crowd. They’re asking what genus your rabbit is, they’re climbing the stage to sample your sawn-in-half buddy, they’re demanding explanations. They ignore your show.
Are you tempted to fire the crowd?
Readers have different interests, professions and cultural backgrounds. You can’t control that. So quit blaming readers for failing to understand your world.
Chances are your inner magician is messing up your prose.
He’s conjured up your world and you love him for it. His job is done. Yet he clings on, guiding your hand, spouting abracadabra purple prose to enchant the crowd. They’re starved for clarity. Your magician sneers at them.
Do you understand your new world fully yet? Flesh out every detail in your own mind. Make your descriptions crystal clear. Muzzle your magician and get to work.
Your new draft is ready. Confusion’s banished. You post the revision with confidence. Again the posts roll in. And still critters don’t get it. They’re asking for even more information.
Your magician turns up his nose. “Never ever show your hand. It’ll kill the show.” You’re inclined to agree. If you reveal your main character is a werewolf or a hyperintelligent-shade-of-the-color-blue in chapter one, then where’s the mystery? Instead, you drip-feed the info, draw the story out and build up the reader’s curiosity till they burst. When you pull your rabbit from your hat after umpteen chapters, your audience is long gone.
Writers have everything to gain by showing their hand
Carve out ideas into crystal clear steppingstones. Space them just so readers can leap to their own discoveries. Let them discover your world. Readers delight at insights gained from your writing. They’ll turn the pages, crossing those dark fissures on their own steam.
Steinbeck’s a master at it, portraying a character with a few strokes, letting the reader make their own leaps. In “Sweet Thursday”, the following conversation takes place:
Hazel demanded, “You running Doc down?”Fauna’s an interesting character. She’s also a regular dame. Instead of spelling it out, Steinbeck lets the reader draw his own conclusions. It’s show-versus-tell with a difference: a built in leap, conjuring up a smile.
“Take it easy,” said Mac. “I think Doc’s scared to write that paper, because he knows it’s crazy. Quod erat demonstrandum.”
“Huh?” asked Fauna.
“Q.E.D.,” said Mac.
“Oh!” said Fauna. “Sure.”
In “The Princess Bride”, Buttercup shoves the Dread Pirate Roberts into a gorge, yelling “You can die, too, for all I care!” Back comes the answer: “As you wish!” Goldman set up the reader to recognize the pirate as her long lost love.
In Ervin Lázár’s children’s story “The square round forest” (“A Négyszögletű Kerek Erdő”) sadness comes knocking at the door. The nonsense words “Dom do dom!” take on different meanings throughout the story, yet ultimately capture a character’s heartbeat, squaring the circle with love. Lazar supports the leap, wedging a new story in his readers’ hearts.*
Movement engages the mind. You know to keep your MC active and on the move. Equally so, space your fissures well. Well-supported leaps bowl over the mind (“as-you-wiiiiiiiish”).
Surmountable fissures spark interest. Canyons kill attention. Readers will fail mid-leap and tumble into confusion. They’ll get bored and bow out (unless you’re Agatha Christie). Work your own sleight of hand, enticing readers to fill gaps and gain illumination.
Conjure up a non-trivial world that allows for discovery
Show readers upfront that mispronouncing Diagon Alley zaps poor wizards to a terrible neighborhood. If you don’t reveal that the boy is a wizard from the start, let him accidentally “disaparate” the glass between his bully and the reptile cage. They won’t know he’s a magician yet, but they will soon. The steppingstone is there. You’re not dragged halfway through the book over thin air before finding out. Soon enough, a giant knocks on the door and announces the truth: the boy’s a magician. Readers don’t bin the book at that stage. They’ll read on, wanting to know more, wondering what will happen to this boy now he knows.
If your world is truly awesome, show it. Why beat the drums to announce something amazing is around the corner? Chances are readers will have moved on before it gets there.
Your magician battles to withhold information, claiming that built-up curiosity fuels page-turners. Don’t give in. Readers don’t gather to see you perform miracles. They’re there to discover a miraculous world, led by their invisible guide. Betray that trust, keep them confused and in the dark, and they’ll bin your book.
Know your job
The writer conjures up surprises readers will come to understand. The boy has a scar. He got it from a bad wizard who failed to kill him. The boy is special. At this stage we’ll accept the mystery because the writer gained our trust with clear prose and allowed us to bridge manageable fissures. We know our patience will be rewarded. The boy’s protected. We find out the reason, gradually. His mother gave her life for him. Her love protects him still. When all is revealed, we close the book with a sigh, asking: “How could it ever have been different?” Not: “How could it ever have been?”
The query: the ultimate test
You’ve got it. Delight doesn’t stem from what a reader can't perceive, it stems from what they can. Withholding information to create "mystery" doesn’t encourage reader interest.
Surely your inner magician won’t ever con you again? Go for the ultimate test. Write your query and send it in for critique.
Next time, start your query before completing your novel. A good query pays dividends in "steering" the story true to its core idea.
The query is part of the final effort necessary to land an agent, so it’s easy to be blinded into considering it as yet another obstacle delaying submission. Don’t. It’s use as a writer's compass balances the effort it takes to wring out that core idea.
Ready to send it in for crits?
Before you do, check out the online resources Absolute Write’s Query Letter Hell (and take part in crits) or Query Shark.
Do you spot any dragons straddling their gold, hurling fire at anyone daring them to condense their secrets in three paragraphs? Why would they, when it keeps them from landing an agent? Their inner magician is putting up a stand. Rewrite after rewrite he holds them back from revealing it “all” until the query critters leave them no option but to spit it out. Check your query before sending it in. Did you fall foul of withholding crucial information?
Time to practice the one rule you and your magician do share: respect your audience's intelligence. If you sell readers tickets for a discovery tour and cart them into a magic show, they’ll smoke you out.
*Footnote: This little gem does not seem to have found its way yet to English readers. A French translation is available from La Joie De Lire under the title “Dom do dom!” “The square round forest” is a loose translation of the Hungarian title.