I have a saying, “There are ten thousand right ways to write any story, but there are a million wrong ways to do it.” I use this to point out that lots of things work, but new writers often don’t recognize that some things never work. So let’s talk about one.
“Suspense.” Suspense is a pleasurable state of excitement or anticipation that an audience feels when they engage in a story. Every story should engender some suspense, lest the audience wander away. What is suspense? It’s wondering if your hero will be tough enough to overcome the villain, learn who killed Aunt Edna, or somehow convince Rhoda to tie the knot.
But many new authors try to generate “False Suspense.” They try to create mysteries where there should be none.
It’s a technique that you’ve seen a thousand times in films. You know: it’s a misty evening and a mysterious figure is glimpsed walking along a cobblestone street in old London. The viewer is left to wonder if this is a killer on the prowl, or perhaps another victim. We see the person’s feet, the back of a cloak, a dagger protruding from a voluminous sleeve. Eventually the camera pulls back to reveal, at just the right instant, our heroine—a determined young woman—out hunting for Jack the Ripper.
The technique works in film, but so often it is too clumsy in novels. For example, I’ve seen stories where the author tries to hide the age, sex, and name of her viewpoint character. How wrong-headed is that? I mean, when you’ve got a viewpoint character, you’re seeing the story through that person’s eyes. The protagonists know who she is, what her gender is, and even how much change she has in her pockets among the lint.
The author in this case is trying to create what we call a “reveal” in Hollywood—a moment where the audience gasps in surprise. But hiding a viewpoint character’s name is just dumb. No one is going to gasp in surprise because her name is Sarah, or she’s female. You’ve got to pick pivotal moments to put in reveals.
In the same way, I’ve seen authors try to hide their settings, so that you don’t know if the story is set in New York or Singapore. Or maybe they’ll try to hide their main conflicts, so that you don’t know if this is a domestic thriller or a romance—all vital information the reader needs to engage in the story.
When we’re young and inexperienced, stories can be confusing anyway. As an eight-year-old, our vocabulary is often small or just different from the author’s, so we don’t understand some of the words. Even if we’ve heard a word hundreds, we might not recognize it in print. After all, spelling conventions in English are confusing.
As young readers, we are also hampered by the fact that we might not understand storytelling conventions. You probably don’t remember this, but as a kid, when you first read dialog, you really had a difficult time trying to separate it from narrative or description.
So if you’re a young reader, it can be difficult to get into the author’s world, to feel it come alive. Naturally, you might feel the author is being coy, withholding information.
Even if the author isn’t being coy, they just might be bad. In short, you’ve read stories by many authors who don’t know very well how to bring a story to life. Even good authors become inattentive and fail to properly guide the reader through their fictive universes.
Let me put this clearly: The author’s job is not to withhold mundane information, but to convey it. Your job isn’t to deprive the reader of story elements, but to create a powerful illusion of reality, a shared dream that the reader can easily enter into.
Sure, you as a writer may need to hook the reader by withholding some information. You might open a story with something like, “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” Now, Tolkien knew that the audience would wonder, “What’s a hobbit?” So he playfully begins to describe the hole instead. He tells us that it wasn’t a wet hole full of a sour smell and the ends of old dead worms, nor was it dry and sandy with nothing to sit on or eat at. “It was a hobbit hole—and that means comfort.”
In short, he creates a little mystery and starts circling toward it. Notice that as a narrator, he’s acting the part of an outside storyteller. He’s not revealing the story through the eyes of Bilbo Baggins—not yet. Instead, he’s slowly revealing what a hobbit is, and he keeps the reader squirming on his hook.
Now, there are some mysteries that the author can’t reveal. If you’re starting out a murder mystery, you might not want to tell us in the first paragraph “who done it.” That would ruin the mystery. But there are exceptions. You could tell us whodunnit, but withhold the information on why they did it, or how.
So the central information in a mystery is often parsed out slowly.
But you need to learn what to withhold and when. If you withhold trivial information, you’ll just infuriate readers!
Don’t “create false tension.”
It’s a cheap trick. Instead, in your opening, create a genuine conflict for your character and let the tension arise naturally.
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
This week at Apex, we have New York Times Bestselling fantasy author Tracy Hickman speaking to us on Saturday morning.
Nov. 24, Julie Czerneda;
Nov. 28, Mauli “Junior” Bonner;
Dec. 1, Beth Meacham.