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On Writing Rules: Creating Suspense without Your Abusing Readers

Yesterday I told the story of a math teacher who kept me in suspense, and ultimately spared me the nightmare of taking more math classes. I also talked about how little I liked math in the first place because it was just a set of soulless rules.

And then I promised you another creative writing series on the rules of writing.

Information Withheld

The core writing rules don’t shape your story, though. They shape your storytelling, but only in good ways.

One of those rules is that, as the narrator, you need to give the reader everything they need to know before they need to know it. There was a strong element of that rule in our discussion of premise, but it shows up way more often than that.

When you first participate in a creative writing workshop or a critique group, this is going to be one of the criticisms you’ll hear:

I feel like you hid this information from me just so you could make a dramatic revelation.

The first time someone told me that, I said, “Well, duh!” Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? Isn’t there an entire genre of literature dedicated to that technique?

I spent years studying the craft of writing and pondering that question before I ever figured it out.

Need to Know

In the end, though, it’s a pretty simple distinction. There’s a difference between building suspense and withholding information. For the most part, the distinction is between a “gimmick” (which will draw criticism in your critique group every time) and a genuine story element.

If you want a quick and easy rule of thumb, you can just ask yourself this every time you deliberately surprise your reader:

“Does this reveal add to the story?”

You’re only allowed to say yes if it advances the plot or clarifies characters and motivations. If you’re doing it just to create a dramatic experience for the reader, you’re doing it wrong.

I’ve made a big deal about these rules protecting the dignity of your readers, but if you followed the comments last time, you might have noticed another aspect I mentioned when chatting with Liz. Writing rules protect your credibility.

As they read your story, your readers are trusting you to tell them everything they need to know. Every time you violate that trust, you lose part of your authority with that reader, and that’s an awfully big price to pay just to get yourself an “Aha!” moment.

Good Suspense

That’s not to say you can’t surprise your reader. I shared a link about that in those same comments, but don’t go look for it now! I’m going to talk about it in more detail tomorrow.

I wouldn’t call myself a master of suspense, but I’ve listened to a few of them share their secrets, and I can at least point you in the right direction. So come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you how to build suspense the right way.

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