Withholding information is one of the most useful tools of creating suspense. It’s also one of the most abused and most fundamentally misunderstood. Suspense is not created by the simple fact of the reader not knowing things. There are a lot of things that I don’t know and that I have never been remotely curious about. Rather, suspense is created through driving questions.

I’m going to walk through this with an example. Suppose Susan has a trunk at the foot of her bed, but none of her friends know what’s inside of it.

First, the reader needs a baseline of knowledge. People read to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. If no one knows that the trunk exists, they cannot wonder what’s inside of it. How might the reader not know about the trunk? Excessive vagueness. If Susan never lets anyone in her room at all or vaguely alludes to a thing by her bed, or if all of the other characters talk circles around the trunk—something I have seen in many a manuscript—the reader cannot even begin to formulate the proper questions.

Don’t tell the readers anything. They can’t be trusted.

Photo credit: splitshire.com

Second, the reader needs context. Why is the question of the trunk worth asking? How is it noteworthy or unusual? A common mistake related to excessive vagueness is a refusal to provide clues once the question has been introduced. This is a mistake born of fear that the readers will solve the mystery too quickly. If the trunk has a heavy iron lock and rattles violently when the moon is full, yes, the reader has a better chance of putting things together before the reveal. But odds are that they’ll also be more invested in the question than if all that they’re given is that Susan has a mysterious trunk.

Third, the information should have urgency. It should be important that the main character find an answer, and the answer should have real ramifications in the story. There are two ways that this goes wrong:

  • The question is a matter of idle curiosity that the main character has no reason to pursue. This means that it’s taking time away from questions that actually are important to the plot.
  • The question appears important but the answer is rather innocuous (i.e. the trunk contains thirty furbies that Susan bought for Kevin’s furby themed birthday party, and once the answer is revealed everyone has a good laugh and gets on with their lives). The exception here is intentional red herrings.

Lastly, the answer should be revealed soon after the reader has enough information that they could reasonably put it together on their own. This is more of an art than a science but, in my own opinion, the best plot twists are the ones that are delivered half a page after the reader figures out what’s up. This way the mystery doesn’t drag on after the reader knows the answer.

Writing like a boss: Suspense isn’t just about reader waiting for information—it’s about the characters actively going out and seeking answers. If the characters actively seek information, this creates movement through the story, provides opportunities to characterize them, and makes the information seem more important than it would if they sat around wondering about it without taking action. It also increases the reader’s investment and makes it much more satisfying when they do find the answer.