To See or Not to See?

While this might not be the most relevant question, if you’re writing mystery/suspense, this question plays a pivotal role in your story.

In 1998, during my senior year at Morehead State University, I took two creative writing courses as electives. We had a visiting professor that taught both classes while the tenured professor took a year off from teaching. Overall, the classes were entertaining and set up as a writer’s workshop.

Each week, designated students brought and handed out copies of their short story or a novel chapter to the class to read before the next class meeting when, as a class, we offered critiques of the work to the writer. The process was to help us see errors, story flaws, etc., and we did so in a civil matter.

During this time, I had been working on my first novel, Predators of Darkness: Aftermath. When my turn came to give copies of my work to the class, I brought the first chapter of this novel.

The novel’s mood and tone is dark and considered dystopian/horror. In the opening, the city is shrouded by a dense fog. No electricity. Lurking in the streets are genetically altered monsters. Due to the darkness and obscure nature of the drifting fog, there isn’t a clear view of the monsters (shifters). Their iridescent eyes are visible and their bloodcurdling chatters echo from the streets below.

Our professor said that I should detail what these creatures look like in the first chapter, which seemed his common point to everyone. All the pertinent information must be given in the first chapter. The reader needs to know, according to him.

I disagreed. Yet, he hammered his point that the reader must know.

Again, I shook my head and was adamant that doing so was the worst thing for the story.

“Why?” he asked.

My argument was simple. If I show you what these creatures looked like in the opening chapter, the suspense and fear that the reader has is gone. The reader needs to feel the fear and dread that the characters endure. By keeping the appearance of the shifters partly hidden, readers keep reading. Kill the mystery too soon, and the urgency to flip the next page lessens.

Of course, without having fleshed out characters the readers empathize with, the suspense is dead anyway.

He thought about my point and after a minute or so, he grinned and agreed. By the look in his eyes, he had an epiphany. His approach to the majority of the students’ work was to put it in the first chapter, but the first chapter only holds so much.

He had a novel that had just been released by Simon & Schuster, and the advice he had given was how he had written the story. Everything was given in the opening chapter. We knew what was going to happen before it occurred. I had bought a copy of his book at the early part of the semester and never got past the third chapter, mainly because all the information had been given up front. I couldn’t get invested in the chapters because the urge and mystery was not there.

In the early 70s, most of the crime shows on television began with a short preview that practically gave away the story, and I’ve never understood why they did that. Why tell the audience before hand? It kills the fun of trying to figure out who did what. So why bother watching? Perhaps they figured out their mistake because the majority of shows no longer do this.

One of the things I have learned over the years about writing mystery/suspense is to keep the reader guessing. Plot twists and turns are a great way to do this. Fear of the unknown or what’s going to happen lure people in. Placing lovable characters into dangerous situations pulls at the readers’ heartstrings.

To See or Not to See? Don’t give away too much information too soon.

Until next time ….

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