Keeping things from the reader is an important part of storytelling. They should read the book wanting to know what’s going on, who’s behind it all and where the story will end up. If everything’s clear from the outset it becomes predictable and boring.
Suspense and tension are created by selectively feeding information to the reader and leaving some facts out.
When done right it makes for an exciting and engaging experience.
When done wrong it can be confusing and tedious.
Deciding how much to reveal and when to do it is a tricky thing to get right. Here are some techniques you can use to help ensure the reader doesn’t lose interest while you dangle bits of info in front of them.
The easiest way to lose the reader is to overload them with unknowns. If a girl we don’t know is being chased by a mystery pursuer while holding a box that contains a secret... it all becomes a big pile of who the hell cares?
It may seem like more mystery will engender more curiosity, but people only have a limited patience for questions without answers.
Limiting the number of unknowns in a scene (preferably down to one) helps focus the reader, makes the unknown element seem more important and gives it a context to exist within.
By choosing one thing to withhold and filling in as much information around it as is possible, the reader will feel engaged with the story as a whole and they will want to know the missing piece of the puzzle all the more.
This is especially important at the start of the story where the reader will be trying to work out what the story’s about and if they’re interested in reading it. Presenting them with a smokescreen right off the bat isn’t going to be very welcoming.
Make It Worth the Wait
As soon as it becomes apparent that there is some piece of information being withheld the writer is making a pact with the reader that the information will make the story more complete and satisfying.
The thing is though that you can produce a fairly good facsimile of this feeling just by leaving a gap in the narrative. Any gap. If something is presented as a mystery, even if it’s what in someone’s sandwich, there’s a natural curiosity produced. But keeping back a random fact and then revealing it later isn’t going to feel very rewarding once it’s revealed.
But not only is the meaningless secret worth very little to a story, the obvious and predictable reveal isn’t particularly satisfying either.
If the soldier is racing his horse to get round the next bend to where he’ll be safe, but we don’t know why he’ll be safe, then him rounding the corner in sight of a castle is going to make sense, but there’s no particular difference from being told he was headed to a castle in the first place.
In order for the reveal to be impactful it should have an element of the unexpected.
When you do have a fairly unremarkable aim for a character you can still use the unknown to up the tension. If you reveal he’s headed for the castle and safety, but when he rounds the bend the castle is on fire, then you take the predictable and obvious and give it a twist that keeps readers on their toes.
This ability to wrong-foot a reader without misleading them is something that really helps the writer-reader relationship. If you do it early in the story, the reader will feel much more trustful of where you take the story.
When things don’t turn out the way a character had hoped, it shows the story won’t be a simple series of predictable events and that the writer has the ability to keep things interesting.
You can also take the opposite approach. If you make the character’s aims unusual or unexpected enough, the reader will stay with the story at least until you prove your claim.
So, if the character has a box with some mystery object in it, you can make that seem intriguing by just refusing to show what’s inside; but if the character claims to have a tiny, living, breathing unicorn in the box then even though you know what’s supposed to be in the box, that doesn’t make it any less intriguing.
If you have the ability to come up with ideas and stories other people don’t, then it pays to show that off. Hiding it until later does you no good.
Add a Nosey Parker
Whenever there’s information the reader needs but which the writer is withholding, it can very easily come across as coy. Like they’re keeping it back just for the sake of it. But, if there’s a character in the scene who is in the same position as the reader in terms of not knowing the answer to a specific question, they can be used as a surrogate for the reader. They can ask the questions or try to sneak a peek in the box.
While it’s easy to avoid giving the reader answers by just not writing it down on the page, it’s much harder to do it when someone in the story is actively trying to find out.
However, this can backfire if this character conveniently doesn’t seem too interested in finding out the answers or gives up too easily. Because the writer doesn’t wish to reveal anything at the moment, characters suddenly become very patient or distracted by something else. In order to work the character has to ask the questions and notice the inconsistencies the reader would.
That doesn’t mean they should succeed (at least not immediately), but the effort allows the reader to feel engaged with the story and give them a sense of moving towards the answers they’re looking for.
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