Building Suspense by Keeping Secrets

I blogged recently about building suspense through characterization, but today I’d like to talk about building another aspect of suspense. When you artfully keep secrets from your reader, this can create a sense of mystery that gives a book that “can’t put it down” quality.

Your reader needs to keep reading because the characters in the book know something he or she doesn’t. Just like in any situation where people are keeping secrets from you, as long as it doesn’t get too extreme, it motivates the reader to investigate and find out what’s really going on.

Often when we think of mysteries, we think of police procedurals or other investigative-type plots (versions of Nancy Drew!) where a character in the book tries to solve a mystery. As the plot progresses, clues are revealed, and you, the reader, put the clues together along with the detective.

As the plot thickens, the book becomes more un-put-down-able, and the tension increases. But when the crime novel isn’t from the police point of view, but from the criminal point of view, there isn’t really a mystery involved. You watch the criminals get the gang together, plan the heist, and execute it. The only mystery is “will they get away with it?” This is the way a typical caper works, like Westlake’s Hot Rock, or (my favorite) Bad News. Or Lawrence Block‘s The Crime of our Lives, or about a million pulp novels, like Block’s Borderline.

One of the tricks to telling a criminal-oriented instead of detective-oriented mystery is to conceal exactly how the criminals are going to pull it off, from the reader. Tell too much and it’s just a matter of the criminals plodding along and executing the job. Tell too little, and the reader loses interest out of confusion. So, give the broad outlines to how the heist is going to be pulled off, but keep one important thing secret.

Wow will they get away? Will they find any money in the vault? What costumes will they wear and how will that change everything? Will the wild-card character lose control and ruin everything? Now, the mystery is not for a detective to solve and for the reader to watch it getting solved, but rather for the reader him- or her-self to solve by reading more. and more. and more.

How can you put a book down when you have such an important task? And suspense is born.

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