Category Archives: Suspense

Keeping Secrets: Two Schools Of Thought

Recently I stumbled upon some writing advice that said a novelist should give his protagonist secrets. That struck a bell, especially when I read an excellent debut novel by Shannon Dittemore entitled Angel Eyes. In this story the protagonist returns home to a small town in obvious emotional distress. But the reader doesn’t know why. The townspeople know why. And of course the protagonist knows why, but we readers are left in the dark … for a little while. Slowly, piece by piece, the story about what caused the character’s trauma unfolds.

I found the story compelling, in large part because I didn’t know what was behind the girl’s broken spirit. I was reading to discover the secret.

In Beckon by Tom Pawlik, a whole town has a secret. In Meg Mosley’s When The Sparrow’s Fall, the protagonist has a secret she guards carefully from the other main character, and consequently from the readers.

Since I couldn’t remember the original source for the advice about secrets, I did a little research and quickly found another writer speaking to the issue:

There is incredible power in keeping protagonist’s secrets. Just like in real life, you never know everything about someone else, and you never want to let someone know everything about you. This is the point of secrets–not everyone knows them. The power of secrets is your readers realize they don’t know everything about the protagonist, and they await with excitement further revelations. (by L.D. Alford at Zen of Scenes)

Ah, it seems this advice to give characters secrets is catching on, or perhaps it’s been a part of writing instruction all along, and I just missed it.

Except, I also came across words of writing wisdom from the renowned Kurt Vonnegut. His final point of eight is this:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. (from “Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story” by Maria Popova)

Come to think of it, a friend had an agent request manuscript changes that removed an unfolding secret in favor of a straightforward, up front presentation of what and why, Vonnegut style.

So which is “right”? I suspect the one that works for your story is the one that’s right. Some stories aren’t built on the suspense of a withheld secret. Whatever other tension and conflict they utilize still keep readers engaged.

But that doesn’t mean character secrets can’t work. The novels I mentioned above are proof that they do. The key, I believe, is that a writer must not confuse the reader in the process of creating a secret. In fact, just the opposite is true. The writer planting a character secret must hint and suggest.

In the case of the novels I mentioned, readers knew there was a secret, and slowly as one piece of information or foreshadowing revealed a clue, a picture began to emerge. At some point along the journey, then, the author pulled back the curtain to show part or all of the secret, surprising readers or justifying their suspicions.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I realize I’m in the camp that likes character secrets, but obviously not everyone is with me, starting with Kurt Vonnegut. What about you? Which camp are you in and why?

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Filed under Characters, Suspense

The Secret To Page-Turning Fiction

There is no actual secret to page-turning fiction — writing instructors, editors, top-selling authors all know precisely what makes readers devour a story, and many of them have shared what they know in books and blogs and writing conferences. So it’s no secret.

Still, I’m guessing the title of this post brought a few visitors who wanted to be let in on the secret. Or maybe they wanted to know if I know the same secret they know. 😉

The point is, the title created a level of curiosity — which is, in fact, the “secret” we’re talking about. Worded another way, suspense drives readers to turn the page.

All kinds of stories can have suspense, not just crime drama or action/adventure. As a device in fiction, suspense is simply that which teases readers into wanting to know more.

When the star player of the hometown baseball team comes up to bat in the ninth inning, behind by a run, one man on base, two outs, and the first pitch is a strike, fans — and readers — hold their breath. The next pitches are two balls, then another strike, evening the count at 2-2. The visiting team leaves their seats in the dugout to stand at the railing or on the steps, ready to spill out onto the field to celebrate. But the next pitch is a curve ball in the dirt, and the count is full. The pitcher has gone as far as he can. He starts his windup. The audience rises to their feet, their cheers reaching a crescendo . . . because they all want to know, will their star player come through and win the game, or will he strike out?

That little scenario above shows a couple things about suspense. First, there must be a real and believable expectation of success accompanied by an equal possibility of failure. If the home team had been behind by ten runs, fans wouldn’t really care if their star player came up to bat with one man on. No matter what he did, the team would still be behind. At the same time, having two strikes against him increases the plausibility of his failure.

Suspense also increases when the outcome matters. If the above was an inter-squad practice game during the preseason, the suspense would be much less than if it was game seven of the World Series.

Games, contests, arguments, elections, legal action, and so forth have a build in element of suspense — both (or all) parties can’t win. Somebody is going to walk away celebrating, and somebody is going to walk away sad.

But any unknown, not just a head-to-head battle, can create suspense. In the case of the losing team in our little example, did they walk away sad or suicidal or as sore losers, tearing up the locker room before they boarded the bus for the airport? Did the players blame the coach and look to get him fired? Did they turn on the pitcher who gave up the winning home run? Inquiring minds want to know, and will keep turning pages to find out.

The surefire way an author creates suspense, then, is to withhold information. It seems counter intuitive to writers who are starting out because our job is to tell the readers what’s happening, isn’t it? Yes, but not all at once. Some facts suggesting that there is more to come keep readers wondering, guessing, and most importantly, reading.

Suspense will not work, however, unless the important elements have been properly foreshadowed. Readers will not worry about the villain shooting the hero if he has no gun, so showing Mr. Bad Guy arming himself, introduces the possibility of a life-and-death struggle. Now readers want to know what’s going to happen with that gun.

Of course, it’s better to think outside the box and build suspense around something that readers haven’t encountered with great frequency. Predictability reduces suspense because readers, having recognized the situation, won’t have the same level of curiosity.

So, from page one of your manuscript, what questions are you creating in your readers’ minds?

Why is the protagonist despondent? Who is that woman he writes an email to every morning before going to work? Why does he delete it instead of sending it? Why did her boss fire her? Who can she trust? These are the kinds of questions writers should tease readers into asking as opposed to giving out the answers up front. When the answers do come — and they should — a new question should step into the gap. Then readers will keep turning those pages because they just have to know.

Oh, if you happen to be wondering about our star player and what he did with a 3-2 count in the bottom of the ninth, you can read a similar scenario in Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat.” Enjoy. 😀

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Confusion Or Curiosity

I’ve determined my new writing goal: Create no reader confusion. And I’ve also deduced that creating reader curiosity is not the same as confusion. In fact, the former is desirable and a key factor as to whether or not a reader will continue on with my story.

Like so much in life, then, there is a tenuous balance between what information a writer gives and what he withholds.

Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. My friend Sally Apokedak once said that a writer creates confusion by providing conflicting facts. I agree, but I think there is more.

I think confusion results from improper motivation—when the reader isn’t given enough to understand why a character is acting as he is.

Another cause for confusion, in my opinion, is when the writer does not ground the story in something concrete. Playing off columnist Steve Almond‘s examples in a June 2008 Writer’s Digest article, I’ll offer one of my own to illustrate this point.

He didn’t know why she said it, but more importantly why she said it about him.

Does this create confusion or curiosity? The answer to this question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some answers (who is he, who is she, what’s the relationship between the two, what did she say, and why did she say it?) in the next little bit, I suggest confusion sets in.

The author does not need to give all the answers, perhaps not even complete answers, and probably not answers without introducing new questions. But the point is, unanswered questions or long-delayed answers are a cause for confusion.

A third cause, in my opinion, is the appearance of that which has not been foreshadowed or outright introduced in a scene. If a character is confronted by villains on the right and another baddie on the left, even as the true antagonist closes in from behind, what’s the hero to do? Well, he’ll hide in the barn, of course. The barn that the reader had no idea was in the scene. Above all, this kind of manipulation breaks the trust of the reader. He no longer feels confident that the author has told him all he needs to know.

But just how much should an author tell the reader? Almond’s answer to this dilemma is helpful:

The reader should know at least as much as your protagonist … [Readers] are happy to open with a scene, so long as they get the necessary background. And they don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

Helpful guidelines, I think.

This article is a repost of one that appeared at A Christian Worldview of Fiction June 17, 2008.

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Filed under Foreshadowing, Motive, Suspense