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The other night at my critique group, I was thinking about what we writers are trying to accomplish when we withhold information.
On more than one occasion, when our group has discussed the opening section of a story or an early chapter, there’ll be a general consensus that it isn’t working. Either there seems to be a piece of critical information that is alluded to but never revealed or, less specifically, it’s just not engaging. In the later example, usually the characters are motivated, but we don’t know why or the conditions of their motivations seem trivial.
When these problems come up in discussion, the answer from the writer is almost always along the lines of, “Oh, there’s this shatteringly brilliant piece of information that will be revealed in the NEXT section or chapter or whatever.” So, you know, just hang on because it’s going to be AMAZING! The problem is, no matter how cool the world of your story is or how fascinating your characters, people won’t keep reading on the good faith that something great is going to happen somewhere down the line.
Now, for a certain kind of story the withholding and revelation of a crucial bit of information is what it is all about. Let’s call it a “twist story.” For me, twist stories are more closely related to jokes and riddles. These can be fantastic stories and they have a long history in the genre. The Twilight Zone made a cottage industry of producing them. But, writer beware, their success in the past, make them tricky to pull off today. TheTurkey City Lexicon even has a bullet point on the topic, titled “The Jar of Tang,” referencing a Twilight Zone episode. Check it out to see the Lexicon’s explanation of the difference between a story conceit and an idea.
More often with the stories I’ve read and critiqued, it’s clear that the writer is not attempting to write a twist story. If you're not writing a twist story, then it’s worth your time to think about how to use the facts of your story to best effect. *
Suspense and revelation
Many good stories often (more often than you might think, once you go looking) tell you right at the beginning what’s going to happen. Turns out revealing information is often just the thing we need to get them emotionally hooked into the story.
I’ll let Hitchcock, the master of suspense, lay it out for you:
"There is a distinct difference between suspense and surprise, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean. We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, Boom! There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.
"Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!
"In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed."
What Hitchcock is talking about here is dramatic irony. This is when the audience or the reader is privy to information that the characters don’t have. Writers from the ancient Greek playwrights to Stephen King have used this tool, because it is such a great way to generate tension and emotion.
It’s true that readers read on because they want to know more. This can be a trap when a writer thinks that they can build suspense by withholding crucial facts relating to the plot and characters. When I’m reading stories (that are not “twist” stories), it’s not the WHAT that holds my attention, but the HOW and the WHY.
Revelation and Epiphany
To take things a step further, there is also the idea of revelation and what James Joyce called epiphany. Joyce recorded surprising moments that,
"[S]eemed to have heightened significance and to be surrounded with a kind of magical aura."
To me, epiphany in writing is a kind of alchemy where an unexpected moment or image creates an emotional response. These are the stories that take the idea of revelation beyond the surface facts of the plot to engineer a shift in perception for the reader. These rare gems make me see the world a little differently after I’ve read them.
"He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how, but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured."
– James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artistas a Young Man
* I think some writers are reluctant to use up their best ideas too early in the story. Ideas are NOT a finite resource. Don’t hoard them, spend them and spend freely. Use the good stuff! I believe if you are free with your ideas, you will open doors to even better material, deeper characters, and more resonant, powerful stories.