Storytelling Basics: What to Withhold

Most writers know that exciting curiosity and creating tension are good ways to keep a reader interested. The twists in Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train are great examples of how authors can surprise readers, compelling them to read on—even if it means staying up all night. As a reader, once you find out the new truth revealed in the narrative, you keep thinking back, trying to find the little hints that should have clued you in.

While the strategy is often effective, it must be used carefully. If you frustrate your readers too much, especially younger readers, they will put the book down and find one of hundreds of other ways to occupy their time. Though every book and every author’s style is different, here are five dos and don’ts for holding back information.


  1. What you withhold should be part of a major revelation.

Most of us know the iconic moment in Star Wars when Darth Vader says, “No, I am your father.” Throughout the film, new revelations about the characters and how they are tied together excite curiosity and change our perceptions about what is going to happen in the story. However, this final revelation forces the audience to rethink the nature of light and darkness in the film and compels us to the other offerings in the franchise.


  1. What you withhold should not be trivial or necessary to understand the narrative as it emerges.

On the other hand, if you are writing a family drama and fail to mention that the father in a household is a step-father to some, but not all, of the children, your reader will spend time trying to figure out the family relationships and why they seem to be secret, rather than becoming immersed in the story. If the relationships are significant to the plot of the story, your reader may become confused and frustrated.


  1. What you withhold should match Point of View (POV).

If you are writing in first person from the POV of a character in the story, then you can only include what that character would know and understand. If your protagonist is a fallible or naïve character, the telling of the story might possibly include misunderstandings that are not cleared up until the character learns something or matures. Thus, your narrative unfolds as you share the new information the character gains. Even if you are writing with a third person narrator limited to the POV of one of the characters, what you can reveal will depend on what the character knows. You can create tension between what the reader knows or understands and what the character knows and understands. Mark Twain does this with the naïve narration of Huck Finn, when he describes Huck’s views on slavery, which are obviously flawed, in contrast with his actions, which show the real interpretation that Twain is trying to present.

  1. What you withhold should make sense to the reader once the truth is revealed.

When the writer reveals the truth that has been withheld, the reader should have an a-ha moment—that palm slap to the forehead when the reader says, “I should have seen this coming all along. There were a few hints along the way and now it makes sense.” I don’t want to give anything away here, but my book group recently read The Last Mrs. Parrish, and our discussion revolved around when in the first half of the book we thought we should have known the twist that was coming in the second half. Further, once the truth was revealed about some of the characters, we realized that little scenes that had bothered us as readers suddenly made sense. That is a very satisfying feeling for a reader, and it happens when an author presents a scene that could have more than one interpretation. When the truth is revealed, the reader knows which interpretation is correct.


  1. How long you withhold should not test the reader’s patience or go on longer than needed.

If as a writer you are saving up all your revelations until the end of the book, you might be trying your reader’s patience. Gradual revelation of new information connected to the narrative as it unfolds lets the reader have several a-ha moments—and if they are spaced well, readers won’t feel like you are gratuitously holding back information to taunt them. Like a good murder mystery, all books should provide a trail of clues that are slowly revealed to build up to a final revelation that makes your readers rethink what they know about the story, the characters, and the world you have placed them in.

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