Today I'm going to dispense a bit of writing advice. I'm helping a writer-friend with a manuscript critique. It's one of the best ways to hone your craft, and if you are a writer and don't actively seek out works to critique, you should...you will gain a better understanding of what works and what doesn't, which will make your own writing stronger. It's also a kind, helpful thing to do for a fellow writer, and at some point you will have several people critique your own work (NOTE: If you are a writer, this is not optional) so you need to get in the game.
One aspect of storytelling that many writers strive for is suspense. It's a key element to a good page-turner...Regardless of genre, some degree of suspense drives the reader's desire to see what happens next.
But sometimes writers think they are being suspenseful when in reality they are being unclear. My protagonist doesn't know what's going on, so I'm going to make this scene very vague so the reader can feel that confusion, too! The readers will feel like they are a part of the story! This will all make sense in the end! There is a problem with this. A confused character can be a good thing. A confused reader is not. The issue is that if a story doesn't make sense early on, the reader may never get to the end.
You don't need to telegraph every twist and turn of the plot and give away spoilers in chapter one. Suspense doesn't work like that. You do need to keep the reader fully informed about two things:
- What just happened
- What is happening now
Your reader may not need to know why something happened, but the reader should not have to question what just happened. Without that basic level of clarity, the suspense dissipates and the reader utters "WTF?" faster than an agent form-rejecting the manuscript you spent the last twelve years polishing.
Sometimes a writer will withhold information in effort to be suspenseful, but suspense doesn't come from a lack of information. It's the exact opposite, really: Suspense is a treat served as a bit of extra information. Little nuggets that build on each other, like Lego pieces snapping together. We are clear on the information we received...we understand the shape, size, and color of the Lego piece, even though we may not know what is being built. When we get the next piece, we know how it snaps into place. Really good suspense will make us turn the pages faster so we can see the what the completed structure will look like.
That's all for now. Next up: Cooking Advice.