At the risk of sounding contrary, this is actually good advice. But what does it mean? And aren’t writers supposed to give the reader what they want, rather than the other way around?
Well, no, not always.
You need to give the reader what they want in terms of delivering the complete story – watertight plot, rounded and believable characters, background and pacing, lots of conflict and tension, atmosphere and emotion etc - but when a writer deliberately doesn’t give the reader what they want, it’s because they are teasing the reader and prompting them to want to know more.
The story is a two-way connection between you, the writer, and your reader. You lay the foundations and paint the background, you indulge them with information and description, but they also have to do some of the work too by trying to figure out what might happen next, what the characters might do and how the story might end etc. That’s precisely what keeps the reader turning the page.
The true art of writing is involving your reader from the moment they read the first paragraph, until the closing sentence at the end of the story. That means they have to be willing to work a little for that effort for them to be rewarded with a good story.
The Art of Holding Back
Holding back from your reader is rather like playing mind games with them. As the writer, you need to impart information that’s relevant to the story– but not too much; otherwise, you blow your chance of surprise and revelation later in the novel.
Deliberately withholding information is the perfect way to dangle the carrot, to stoke the reader’s interest.
Crime, horror and thriller writers employ this to great effect. They plant clues and snippets of information, but they hold back from telling the reader everything, because later in the story, they might have a revelation to surprise the reader, and in the meantime, that keeps the reader guessing.
Other writers hold back on revealing everything about their characters. Others hold back certain elements of the story that could form a twist later in the novel.
How well can you keep secrets? This is another device employed by writers to sustain the tension. This is where the writer lets the reader in on something that the protagonist – the hero or heroine of the story – won’t know, but the writer doesn’t give the full picture of what it is, so the reader is left guessing the outcome later in the novel.
Again, this device is designed to keep the reader interested. They know something, but not everything. Keep them in the dark about stuff.
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a good example of this. He throws in bits of information for the reader to piece together, where necessary, then surprises the reader further into the story by completely wrong footing them, while the story twists in another direction.
He also lets the reader in on certain aspects of the story that the protagonist isn’t aware of, thereby leading the reader to keep reading to find out what happens. They have to keep reading.
This is a prime example of not giving the reader exactly what they want.
Dropping clues for the reader to work out what might happen is another way to tease the reader, and again this helps sustain the tension and keep them reading. Hinting at things to come is an age-old mechanism used in literature and movies alike, but again, you’re not giving the reader exactly what they want. You’re whetting their appetite by deliberately remaining coy and not giving them all the relevant information.
If we write a story that tells the reader everything they need to know from the outset, then the reader has no true reason to keep reading. Many new writers do this in the early chapters of their novels – they explain everything in the misguided belief that’s what the reader wants, but it means the rest of the story crumbles later on because the reader knows pretty much everything. That means there will be few surprises, twists or revelations.
And trying to add these as an aforethought tends to make the whole thing contrived because they don’t always seamlessly fit together and don’t always make sense.
Hold back on information, keep secrets and foreshadow whenever possible. Don’t be afraid to play games with the reader or mislead them. Close doors, put barriers up and lead them on a wild good chase if you want to.
But, sometimes, it pays to not always give them what they want.
Next week: Emulate but don’t copy – Why you should avoid writing like your favourite authors.