(What) You Don't Show: The Fine Art of the Tease
As I work on beginning a new project, I begin with a scenario in mind, a scenario with such an intense conflict and harrowing backstory, I can hardly wait to put it on the page.
Though I absolutely know better -- knew while I was writing it that I was going to be forced to cut or rewrite -- I couldn't help myself. I started with a delectable chunk of flashback, so I could capture with crucial event that serves as a catalyst for my story.
For a few days, I even deluded myself with the thought that the flashback was dramatic and compelling. Surely readers wouldn't mind if just this once I started...
Many of them wouldn't, but the truth is, the backstory is so emotionally strong that leaping ahead into the "real time" of the story would dramatically lessen the book's tension. And having so quickly given up the goods of its most dynamic secrets, the story might lose the interest of its readers before it once more gathers steam.
Definitely, I thought, imagining a strip tease artist too quickly revealing all her goodies.
Darn it, I thought, demurely tucking the bare flesh of backstory into my outtakes folder. Afterward, I restarted the story, beginning with the heroine whose entire life has been profoundly affected by the backstory. Setting her up quickly and, I hope, relatably (broke single mom trying to get home on a snowy Christmas morning after a night shift), I raise question after question as she responds to the escalating, immediate conflict tossed into her path. (Any character who finds herself in the opening of one of my books had better darned well brace for impact.)
And all the while, I flash the plot's shoulder here, a hint of leg there, tiny clues something's a little off about the heroine's situation and her reaction to the first character she encounters. The reader is teased with snippets of dialogue and internal thought meant to intrigue rather than to lay bare the mystery... at least enough to force my story's audience to keep turning pages to satisfy mounting curiosity.
Of course, you'll have to increasingly reveal more, satisfying at least some questions, or the reader will stomp off, taking his/her frustrations elsewhere. But if you give up too much, too quickly, you certainly risk losing not only the reader's, but your own interest before you finally bare it all.
Pictured: Demi Moore in Striptease (1996)