If you haven’t heard or read someone pontificate about the repugnance of withholding, you probably haven’t participated in any kind of fiction writing community. In fact, take your pulse just in case.
I’ve participated in writers groups where members railed against breaking every kind of rule. “Kill the adverbs! Fervently!” The obsession against withholding, however, bordered upon the occult. If you withhold, you are going to hell.
For those who don’t know what withholding is, an author “withholds” when he hides something from the reader that is readily known by the POV character and clearly relevant to the situation, only to spring it on him at a time that the writer hopes will twist his little brain. There are some variations, but at the end they generally pull the rug out from under the reader with a flourish and a “Fooled ya!”
The most annoying thing about it is that the railers are absolutely right… except when they’re not.
What I mean is, the vast majority of the time it’s a bad idea, but once in a while a particularly skilled writer with a particularly great idea can spring one that everyone likes. When they pull it off, it’s usually something big. When such an anomaly appears along with its fanfare and adulation, the withholding occultists tend to look away like an atheist confronting a ghost or a mid-Nebraskan encountering a Democrat.
But it’s very rare, and in general such subterfuge is ill-advised—even for the pros. I read a Jack Reacher novel that riveted me through half of the book. Reacher played psychological cat-and-mouse with three other characters, the implication being that two were killers and one was a captive. Half way through, however, we discover that it was nothing of the sort, and that the only person in any real danger was the bad guy. It completely deflated all the tension that Lee Childs had built up to that point, and the rest of the book was a big disappointment, never able to regain that tension.
And that’s why withholding almost never works. It builds up fake tension, and that tension is inevitably completely lost, leaving the reader disappointed and disillusioned.
What do you do, then, when you have this totally awesome idea, but it seems to require withholding?
In the throes of my 365 days of flash writing, I confronted this issue a number of times, and I discovered a remedy. If the idea is really that good, it will work even better by telling the reader up front what you are doing, and show the story from the point of view of someone who knows what is happening—because that’s where the real tension is. Instead of puncturing the built-up tension, you see real tension build as you watch how the perpetrator of the ruse and his victim respond to it. When the secret gets revealed to the victim, you feel the catharsis of his tension relieved without losing the effect of the real tension built up to that point.
I must have been tired when I wrote Day 212: Freak Show because I did it wrong and hid what was really going on. It’s okay, but far less satisfying than it could have been. So if I ever rewrite it for publication (these are all first drafts), I will flip the POV.
I did it right with Day 138: Make Him Feel Small and Day 339: BIID. If I remember correctly, the first one is where I discovered this tactic. I wrestled with it for a while, but both of these stories turned out much better by flipping the POV of the original idea and letting the reader in on the secret.
I don’t have any advice for how to craft that rare story that pulls off withholding well, but this is a tactic which seems to work well for me, and, so far, no pitchfork-bearing mob of withholding occultists has shown up at my door.