I thought I had a fantastic short story— you know the feeling. It was thick with understated suspense, snappy dialogue and dynamic characters with names like “Chub Henderson.” I worked and reworked the draft, and when I had a polished story I was proud of, I shared it with a trusted reader – a professor of creative writing. As I waited for his response, I imagined all the ways he might compliment me, and the direct call he’d make to his agent to recommend this talented new writer.
The first note on my returned manuscript was: “You’re withholding facts to manipulate the reader, and it’s insulting.” No criticism sandwich to soften the blow, no “The prose is exquisite, but….”. Just the cold truth. Where I thought I was creating suspense, I was merely holding information so I could reveal it for shock value later on in the manuscript. It was cheap, poor writing.
As writers, we’re taught not to give everything away upfront. Cut the backstory, leave some work for your reader, and create tension. How could P.D. James keep her readers compulsively turning pages if she didn’t hold a little back? There’s a line between deceiving the reader and building suspense, but when is a secret a cornerstone of the plot, and when is it a gimmick?
The answer is, it depends. Whose secret is it, and how is it discovered?
Whose secret is it?
Does every character in the story know the secret, but the narrator doesn’t share it with the reader? This is when secrets turn into tricks on your reader. Information is withheld that changes the reader’s understanding of the story.
In the case of the flawed piece of writing I mentioned earlier, the gruff bartender is the protagonist’s illegitimate father. Every other character in the story knows this fact, and it’s important to the story later on, when father and son are vying for the attention of the same woman. In a later draft, the reader knows, too, and that changes what’s at stake for the rest of the narrative. Revealing the secret added tension, rather than sacrificed suspense.
How is the secret revealed?
Maybe you have the perfect secret, known by just the writer and the antagonist (it’s extremely difficult to have a protagonist keep a secret from the reader). That’s a fair secret. Now you just have to give your readers a chance to engage with that secret without discovering it. Suspense depends on how a writer manages the flow of information to the reader. Throughout a story, writers offer their readers questions and provide at least partial answers (all the better if this elicits more questions!) as the reader progresses. Revealing pertinent information surrounding the ultimate mystery or conflict allows the reader to feel ushered toward the story’s final reveal, rather than surprised by a “Gotcha!” conclusion.
The good news is that it’s an easy problem to fix. Withholding information is an issue of structure, not concept. A fresh reader, who has never seen the work before, is your best bet at knowing if you’ve nailed the reading experience you were shooting for. Talk to your reader about the questions he or she considered while reading. If you’re surprised by your reader’s interaction with the secret, it may be time to tinker with how information is dispensed. Leave your strategies for building suspense and avoiding secrets in the comments!