Keep the Reader Guessing

Years ago, when I first decided to write “seriously,” I submitted a lot of short stories to science fiction/fantasy magazines. Sadly, a lot of those publications are now defunct. But, I learned a lot from various editors during that time.

Some editors were gracious enough to enclose pointers with their rejection forms. However, a few went a bit further and actually wrote comments on their forms (ALWAYS a good sign). One piece of advice was to avoid using too much exposition. Basically, get to the point and don’t bog down the reader with nonessential background information. Marion Zimmer Bradley put it another way, as she had been told by an editor, “Johnny gets his butt caught in a bear trap and spends the rest of the story trying to get out of it.” Dean Koontz suggests start with the action.

I’ve learned that adding the urgency and dilemmas early on–like the opening–really pulls the reader in. After all, if readers aren’t interested in what you’re writing, they won’t finish the work. No audience? What’s the point in writing other than for one’s self-amusement?

I took creative writing courses during my senior year of college. The professor kept insisting that I show the monsters of Predators of Darkness on page one. His advice was to put it all on page one, but page one is only so long, right?

I argued  that I don’t need to put a description of the monster on page one. When he asked, “Why?” I explained. If I show the monster on page one, I just killed the suspense and mystery that attracts the readers to the main character’s problem. You’re more afraid of what you don’t see hiding in the shadows than when you find out exactly what it is. Ask anyone that’s terrified of spiders or snakes that steps into a room where a spider or snake is hidden what level his/her fear is. If you know where it is, you can avoid finding it. Not knowing where it is . . . means you might accidentally walk into its path. Sometimes not seeing is MORE frightening. The possible element of surprise, so to speak.

This is why I try to start with the action first and keep the reader guessing until the end.

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