Suspense and Tension: You Need Lots of Layers for a 300-Page Striptease

You’ve got to start with a LOT of layers if you want to make a novel work.

Like most writers I’ve worked with in workshops and writing groups, I tend to think too much about when I’m going to tell my readers something. Instead, we should be asking ourselves, how long can we go without telling our juicy bits?

Of course, you don’t want to be coy with your reader or make her feel tricked, led-on, or otherwise done wrong. Nor do you want to build up a reveal so much that–no matter how big a deal it is–it leaves the reader thinking, “is that all?”

But! Neither do you want to toss away all your character’s secrets and complications in the first chapters of your book. As Noah Lukeman writes in The Plot Thickens, “storytelling is not about giving away information but about withholding it.”

Ilsa Bick’s Drowning Instinct is a recent example of just the right level of restraint–she manages to keep us hanging on to find out the specific details of the tragedy that opens the book. That restraint ups the tension and anticipation in the book.

Of course, it helps that Bick weaves together many threads in the plot. In fact, that’s a second point about this whole withholding idea: it works best when you’re working between several plot lines or at least dimensions of a story. In Bick’s, for example, in addition to the big secret, we have unanswered questions for at least fifty pages at a time for a number of plot threads. These additional layers of mystery, which are peeled back befor the “big reveal” keep our eyes trained on the novel’s striptease. The result is suspense, lots of it.

I’d like to have some of that. So I’m working on my layers…


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