Friday, January 27, 2006

Ask but don't Answer

Writing is a lot like teasing your younger brother with a secret.

The longer you hold it over his head, the more worked up he gets.

All stories, no matter the genre, can benefit from suspense. The tension doesn't have to be in the form of the bad guy stalking the hero. It can be much simpler, much less dramatic, but still make the reader want to keep reading. For example:

"You seem upset," Jack said. "What's up?"

"I'll tell you later." Herb said. "In private."

And we have suspense.

Posing questions, then making the reader keep reading to get the answers, is the essence of the term "page turner."

This why why soap operas are so popular---nothing is ever solved. This is why the 10 o'clock news gives you a quick teaser of their most interesting story, and doesn't show you the full clip until 10:29.

Ask a question, but don't give the answer right away.

I'm currently writing my fourth Jack Daniels book, DIRTY MARTINI, and my wife demands to read it as I finish each chapter. She was yelling at me yesterday, because I had a scene with the villain surrounded by all of this obscure equipment, but didn't explain what the equipment was.

Wife: What's all that stuff he's using?

Me: You'll find out later.

Wife: Write faster.

Writers need to be teases. It keeps the story moving. It makes the reader want to know what happens next.

Don't give the reader everything at once. Hold stuff back. Feed it to them slowly. Even boring exposition and backstory can become unbearably dramatic if you withhold the information rather than spill it all at once:

"What's wrong with Donna?"

"Oh. She had some... problems, a few years ago."

What works about this method of building suspense is that when you do share your secret with the reader, they feel like they're a part of it. They remember the earlier reference, and are happy to be let in on the game.

This works not only with omitted information, but with seemingly unneeded details.

On page 17: "He got out of the car and pulled the tarp on top of the chemical box."

Then, on page 178, you reveal what the chemicals are for. And the reader goes, "Aha! I wondered what those were for!"

The more seeds you plant, the more fun the read. Just remember: restraint is the key.