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Withholding Information

Has this happened to you? You have a good idea for an ending of a short story. You figure out the plot twist that will bring together the various narrative threads. You think of that “aha” moment that will crystallize the meaning of the fiction.

You then begin to write toward that place but, in so doing, you withhold information from the reader. And now you’re more interested in getting to that place where the reveal will happen than in the section that you’re writing. This is often a moment when the fiction can lose energy. And it does this because we are keeping a secret from the reader. We know something that they don’t and it is in that holding onto information, that refusal to share, that a distance grows between the reader and the writer. The reader can sense that something has shifted.

In a craft talk at the Tin House Writers Workshop in July 2017, Aimee Bender spoke about pace in fiction. As part of her talk, she used a quote from Annie Dillard about withholding:

One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Exercises

  • Pin the Annie Dillard quote above your desk, in your notebook, on your refrigerator.
  • Any time that you feel yourself starting to hold on to a crucial piece of information, use it in the fiction at that very moment. Force yourself to do this even if it seems wrong. You can change it up in revision, but see what happens if you reveal earlier, rather than later. What else might rise to the surface and surprise you?
  • Focus on the how and the why, rather than the what. In Julie Buntin’s novel Marlena, we learn that Marlena is dead right at the start. The story then becomes understanding how and why she died, rather than the fact that she died.
  • If you don’t want to write a scene, think about whether it might be because you’re simply using it to head somewhere else. Can you condense the scene to a sentence or a paragraph?
  • Ask your readers if they ever feel as though they’re ahead of the story, if they’re figured something out before it gets revealed. If that’s the case, you’re probably withholding. See what you can reveal earlier.

by Laura Spence-Ash