You’ve got a great story idea, characters your readers will love, and a fantastic surprise twist. You can’t wait to start writing and lead your readers along the path of suspense that builds up to the big reveal at some point late in the story. Most of all, it tickles your stomach to think of the way it will blow the readers’ mind!
But does it work that way? Here’s a question for you to chew on:
Can the readers truly be in suspense if they don’t have any idea what’s coming?
But if you give them more than tiny morsels as clues, they might suspect what will happen, and it won’t have the “wow” impact it deserves.
It’s a catch-22.
Here’s a real-life scenario where this issue played out:
Last month, while at a St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball game, my beloved team gave up a run to the Cincinnati Reds within minutes of the game starting. The score stood for the next six innings. Finally, in the eighth inning, the Cardinals let loose. A ball deep in the outfield, which the fielder dropped, turned a double into a triple. Two batters later, another ball into the outfield brought the first runner home and poised a second runner in scoring position. Twice that inning, the Cardinals took their fans to the edge of their seats, then to their feet. In a game that looked like it had already been lost, the score flipped and the Cardinals won the game.
Just like in a novel where the author saves the juicy surprise for the end, the Cardinals didn’t turn on their good stuff until the end of the game.
In spite of the great inning–a fantastic surprise for the fans–there was a problem. In those six innings when very little action happened, they got bored…so bored that at the end of the seventh inning so many people left that it almost felt like the end of the game. The fans hadn’t seen anything in the play up to that time to make them suspect that the Cardinals would rally in the eight, much less win the game, so they left.
It’s not quite the same when you write a novel, because the author is in control. In a game, no one knows for certain when something big will happen. In a book, however, the author does know. Because of this, the author feels that delicious sense of suspense building up to the reveal. But since the readers can’t know without ruining the surprise, they often don’t sense the suspense. And, unfortunately, many may decide that the book has lost its luster and put it down, never to be picked up again.
So I would like to propose that revealing your story’s big secret early on can actually increase the suspense.
Imagine these scenarios:
#1 – The protagonist’s boyfriend knows where the relic she is searching for has been relocated, but he won’t tell her because he is bound by an oath. What if this is revealed near the end of the story, just when she is about to accept his proposal? What a huge shock for both the protagonist and the readers. Once the readers know, they can look back and see that there were little bits and pieces that pointed towards this revelation, but they never would have seen the twist coming. That’s the “wow” factor we all look for.
OR IS IT?
#2 – Early on in the book, the readers discover, through a scene in the boyfriend’s POV, that he knows the information she’s looking for. Now the readers know something the protagonist doesn’t. They can anticipate that something is going to happen that will reveal the boyfriend for what he is, but not how it will unravel. So at every twist and turn–every moment of conflict–the readers wonder if this will be when the protagonist find out and wonder what her response will be. This tension between the readers’ knowledge and the protagonist’s lack of knowledge builds the suspense until the revelation for the protagonist. Both the readers and the protagonist are surprised. Readers experience the “wow” factor in spite of knowing the surprise in advance. As a matter of fact, they have two “wow” moments: when the surprise is revealed to the readers and when it is revealed to the protagonist. Plus, they got to experience the anticipation that built up to the second “wow” moment.
My suspense-loving heart leaps at the thought of the second scenario.
Which would you prefer to read?