Every quarter I read at least half a dozen pieces of freshman writing that withhold key information from readers in the hope of building suspense. I suspect these student-writers once watched The Sixth Sense or Psycho and decided that all great stories need a great twist.
The problem, though, is that they missed the pony. Yes, there’s a reason why great dramatic twists pack such a wallop. But these students seem to think that their own surprise is the extent of the technique. They then conclude that the more they can keep readers in the dark, the better their story will be.
These young writers grasp that readers will only see what the writer tells us is there. But they use this power in a manipulative way. If you withhold essential information about setting, event, and character, it’s the equivalent of basically staring at a pothole in the street, letting your blind friend walk into it, and then laughing into your sleeve. Don’t do it.
Readers are smart, and they will figure out that you omitted things just to appear clever. And they will resent you for it. So if you didn’t tell us–whoops!–that your character was actually taking a driving test and–whoops again!–there was someone else in the backseat all along, readers aren’t going to think, “Wow! What a twist!” They’re going to think, “Why the hell didn’t you tell me this sooner?”
1. Hitchcock and Chekhov both agree: Tell us about the gun on the wall.
If your goal is suspense, you have to tell your readers not only exactly what is happening but also identify every potential danger or obstacle in the character’s path. Suspense is a form of worry. That worry will be more powerful if readers are wondering, “When will Fred’s violent temper flare up again? And will he finally hurt his family when it does? Or will he begin healing from the war before it’s too late?”
George Saunders explores exactly this form of suspense in his short story, “Home.” Read it to see just how generous he is with his details. Then, notice how much more you worry because of that.
2. Confusion is not suspense.
If you don’t tell readers where they are and what’s happening, we’ll be confused. Most of us can tolerate suspense just fine. But confusion? Your story will land in the wastebasket before you can say, “Holy Backfire, Batman!” Instead, think back to Psycho. Hitchcock didn’t want us guessing the killer, but he instantly conveyed that the motel was a place where terrible things happened. Just look at that house up on the hill.
3. Readers want to care about your story. So give them something specific to care about.
Novice writers do this all the time. Afraid of giving away too much, they don’t give away enough. This often stems from insecurity about the story. They’re afraid a trip to a drugstore isn’t interesting enough, so they open on a man driving. We don’t know where he came from. We don’t know where he’s going. And we don’t know what the stakes are. So why should we care?
Sure, Tarantino made this work in openings for Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs and, well, a lot of his films. But watch these again. It’s not the vagueness that draws us in–it’s the sharp-as-knives dialogue delivered by masterful actors portraying fascinating characters. Maybe you can play at that level one day. But that’s not where you start. As Hemingway said, tell the damn story straight. Be exact with your details.
Pick up just about any published short story, and you’ll see the writer packing in those specifics in the very first sentence.
4. A great writer withholds information from other characters, not the audience.
Welcome to the power of point of view. You could write alternating chapters, moving between the hero and the villain. We can hear the murderer mentally rehearsing how to off his coworker two cubicles over. Meanwhile, the unsuspecting target strolls into the empty bathroom alone, takes the dark stairwell, waits for his bus in the shadows. Readers will hold their breath, terrified of the impending attack. And it has to happen–because by that point, you’ve promised. But that doesn’t mean we know how it will turn out. Maybe the would-be victim is a retired Navy SEAL. Or maybe he’s actually a pretty rotten guy who deserves to die.
The point is sometimes you do need to withhold information. And you do that by keeping the point-of-view character in the dark. This is why those great twists in Psycho and The Sixth Sense are great. It’s not about fooling your audience. It’s about characters who thought they knew the cards on the table–only to find out they don’t. So next time you want your readers hooked on your story, let them into it with clear details and specific stakes. Keep them close to a character who doesn’t have a clue. And then pour it straight.
Just like a good Scotch.