Have you wondered what makes a book unputdownable? What techniques or tricks an author employs to make sure you read that next word, sentence, paragraph, page?
One of the most effective ways to do this is by building suspense. All genres have suspense…or at least should.
Suspense is reader glue. Conflict, questions, secrets, surprises, and action are the lifeblood of suspense. Suspense happens when dramatic questions or secrets trap the reader’s attention and makes them want to know what happens next.
Our job is to sprinkle secrets out like wayfinding points to get readers to ask questions…without them realizing we are doing it.
Be Careful: Gimmicks vs Suspense
The last thing we want to do is be gimmicky with our writing. There is a difference between withholding information and having genuine secrets. If you must withhold information, you must have a compelling reason. This reason must be more than to simply surprise or shock the reader.
Angela Ackerman asks three questions when planning story secrets:
- Does this secret enhance the plotline, or distract from it?
- Does this secret align with the character’s moral code?
- Does this secret send a message about the character’s personality that meshes with how I want readers to think about him or her?
When using secrets to build suspense, you must make sure that:
- The secret is integral to the plot.
- The secret is true to the character.
- Your character must have a necessary or indispensable reason for keeping the secret.
- The tension is not increased by giving the reader the information upfront.
If you cannot check these four criteria off, you may be better off giving your reader the information, and building suspense through other secrets and questions.
Remember: readers are smart. Treat them as such.
How Do You Want Readers to Feel When They Learn a Secret?
- Surprise. In other words, you don’t want them to see it coming. (Hello, Snape.)
- Understanding. When the reader learns the secret, it should make total sense. We want our readers to have a WOW and DUH experience. (The Sixth Sense, I’m looking at you.)
- Satisfaction. The reveal should emotionally satisfy the reader—whether that emotion is revenge, a giant I-told-you-so/I-knew-it, character redemption, or they-had-it-coming. (The Good Place, is actually the bad place.)
Types of Secrets in Fiction + Examples
There are two types of secrets in fiction. Author Secrets, which are the story twists and surprises that you, the author, intentionally keep from the reader and reveal based on your plot. And Character Secrets, which are secrets characters keep from other characters, usually traced back to that character’s morality or original wound. These secrets may or may not also be kept from the reader.
- Directly tell the danger/stakes at the beginning, but no more. That’s what the rest of the book is for….
- QUEST FOR A MAID, Frances Mary Hendry
When I was nine years old, I hid under a table and heard my sister kill a king.
- I mean, those are high stakes right? After this bomb of a first line, the author just goes into the story of Meg, the precocious little sister and the toothache that led her to witness this horrific event.
- The devil’s in the details…the important ones that is. These are little hints that, once your final reveal comes to light, all come bubbling back to the surface. These are the secrets that, on second read-through, readers will pick up on.
- HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, J.K. Rowling
Perhaps Harry had eaten a bit too much, because he had a very strange dream. He was wearing Professor Quirrell’s turban, which kept talking to him, telling him he must transfer to Slytherin at once, because it was his destiny. … He rolled over and fell asleep again, and when he woke the next day, he didn’t remember the dream at all.
- Hint at what’s to come – plants and reveals
Plant: Something thumped against my head. I looked around, up, down—and picked up a raisin. Where did that come from? Grief rolled through me, tight and tense and tinted with guilt. Raisins would be forever connected to Narfi, my troubled friend who’d tried to protect me from the Sons. And they’d killed him for it. I closed my hand around the shriveled fruit and got to my feet.
- Our main character believes her friend Narfi is dead—never to be seen again. But as more raisins appear in her path (more plants), she—and us—perk up. Something else is going on, and we’ll have to keep reading to figure out what.
- Chekhov’s Gun: ‘If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.’ This device doesn’t have to be a literal gun, but if you include a significant detail in the beginning, and spend time describing it, the item or idea must be used by the end of the story.
- THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE, Avi
But gradually — like a telescope being focused — I began to realize I was watching something clinging to one of the mooring ropes on the ship’s stern. It reminded me of a picture I once had seen of a sloth, an animal that hangs upside down upon jungle vines. But this — I gradually perceived — was a man. He appeared to be shimmying himself from the dock up to the Seahawk. Even as I realized what I was seeing, he boarded the ship and was gone.
In this example, our main character is witnessing a stowaway steal onto a ship in the beginning of the story. She’s too naive to understand what she saw and it quickly slips her mind. The detail is small, and not much thought is given to it in the story BUT our reader ears have perked up, and we’re now—on a sublevel—searching the story for this mysterious man and when he might show up again.
- HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, J.K. Rowling
“It was Snape,” Ron was explaining, “Hermione and I saw him. He was cursing your broomstick, muttering, he wouldn’t take his eyes off you.”
“Rubbish,” said Hagrid, who hadn’t heard a word of what had gone on next to him in the stands. “Why would Snape do somethin’ like that?”
Whether your story’s secret is something that is only known to the author, the character, or between certain characters, secrets are one of the key ingredients of building suspense, and therefore, crafting a story readers cannot put down.
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