I was working on a wonderful client manuscript last month that hit a rough patch in terms of writing suspense. It happens. Quite a lot, actually. Now, this particular manuscript was a fantasy adventure where the kids went to another world. I decided to write about it because this is a popular premise that many people pick. (Follow the link for more on how to innovate your book premise.)
Writing Suspense: Lack of Information Can Hurt Your Story
What really slowed this particular manuscript down, and what I’ve seen many times before, is a lack of information about the world. This is completely understandable. Writers have been put off of “info-dumping,” perhaps even by yours truly. They don’t want to simply unload all of the necessary information all at once when the protagonist lands in the new world. The downside of this approach, however, is that it leaves the protagonist in limbo.
Where are they? What’s going on? What is the context of the world? What’s everyone up to? Why? These basic worldbuilding questions go unanswered. And, even though you’re writing a thriller, the entire plot of the story stalls because it has now become a quest for information. Plus, all of the characters are now withholding information from your protagonist.
If you find yourself using phrases like, “There’s much for you to learn but not now,” or something similar, your manuscript might have this issue. The characters in the other realm know about the world, but if they don’t tell your protagonist, or they stall, then the reader starts to wonder why. They feel jerked around. When you’re writing suspense, characters need to know certain things, and people’s refusal to tell them starts to feel arbitrary.
Imagine the following stalling in The Wizard of Oz:
“Who is Oz, the Great and Powerful?”
“You’ll find out all in due course.”
“What’s with all these monkeys? Did I hear something about a witch?”
“That’s a very long story. Just follow the yellow brick road and you’ll find out eventually.”
The Instinct is Good, But…
That’s not very satisfying, is it? So the protagonist wanders around, totally clueless about the world and the various elements operating within it. And the instinct is good. You don’t want to info-dump and you get to withhold information that will arrive with a big splash later. The reveal gets to become a plot point. But what about the actual plot? What about the things the protagonist wants and how they clash with what the antagonist wants? That is really where your action is going to be, and is the key to writing suspense.
Fixing the Lack of Information
When you’re writing a mystery, leak information strategically. The more information your protagonist has, the better. Many writers assume that leaving your reader with too little information will create a snazzy sense of mystery. It won’t. Confusion is not the same as mystery. (Mystery writing tips, anyone?) You should be volunteering key worldbuilding information throughout, as the protagonist gets deeper and deeper into the story.
“You see, things aren’t always what they seem here.”
“There is a witch, and her deal is ABC…”
“The Wizard wants XYZ and you might be just the ticket…”
Once your protagonist knows certain things about the world or the story, they can operate with that information and further their agenda, which is likely in conflict with something going on in the world. When you’re writing suspense, that’s how you generate most of your story tension. Information has some power to create stakes and surprise, but I’m of the opinion that what your protagonist does with information is much more powerful.
If you feel like you’re wading around in the Muddy Middle, ask yourself if the protagonist is chasing information. Then think about giving it to them, and using the reveal as a springboard instead of the end all, be all.
Are you writing a thriller? My developmental editing services will help you map out how to strategically place information throughout the course of your story.