How to Withhold Crucial Plot Information

21 Jul
Sarah Layden's story, "Bad Enough With Genghis Khan," appeared in Boston Review.

Sarah Layden’s story, “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan,” appeared in Boston Review.

When I was a kid, I devoured Agatha Christie novels, sleuthing along with Hercule Poirot, determined to solve the mystery before he did. I figured out pretty quickly that Christie was holding out on me, not showing me everything I needed to put the pieces together. But instead of getting frustrated, my inability to outwit her detective actually made me love the books more. I was in the hands of someone smarter than me, and I knew that not only would all would become clear by the final page, but it would also be a little bit shocking.

As writers, we sometimes want to withhold information in order to create a surprise ending, but it’s not easy to do. Many times, the readers know we’re messing with them and can see the strings being pulled. The best shock is the one that seems to come out of nowhere, and this is exactly what Sarah Layden pulls off in her story, “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan,” which you can read now at Boston Review.

How the Story Works

The ending is suggested, though we don’t know it yet, in the story’s first sentence:

The week after my husband’s retrial and acquittal, we went to a Mongolian barbecue restaurant for a celebration dinner with another couple.

Notice how smoothly that sentence operates. It begins with a trial and verdict and ends with Mongolian barbecue and a celebration. The rest of the paragraph is ostensibly about the meal and what happens to the other couple in the future (they get divorced). There is an emotional undercurrent present—the narrator gets drunk and starts to cry—but it’s not clear why she’s upset. (Remember, the trial only received half a sentence and hasn’t been mentioned again.) The next paragraph, which is its own section, moves onto a different situation. The trial is behind us.

The middle of the story uses different scenes and situations to develop a connection between sexual encounters and Genghis Khan, the infamous conqueror who raped and pillaged his way through Asia. Each of these scenes is compelling, but the relationship between them isn’t clear. We’re not sure where we’re headed, but lines like these have us intrigued:

Blushing, I delete the history from my browser but forget to delete it from my secret backup location, in case I want to remember the things we’ve deleted. My husband throws something away and thinks it disappears. Images I can never erase.

Then, in the second to last second, we encounter this (spoiler alert):

When a young woman has lived an unharmed life, she is not so much naïve as incredulous at the threat of harm. No way will she wind up like the kidnapped and presumed-murdered girl who was about to inform on drug dealers; or the girlfriend knocked down the stairs in a fight and then dismembered, her limbs, head, and torso hidden in the walls; or the very young girl secreted to the hills above her family’s home, enduring daily rape by a man old enough to be her grandfather; or the teen runaway kept as a sex slave in the secret compartment of one man’s basement. I sat beside the judge’s bench and typed these words, transcribed these testimonies, remembering meeting my husband in the same courtroom: his arm in a sling over his police officer’s uniform, the gold wedding band on his finger both remnant and reminder, his eyes hooded. His missing wife’s body never turned up.

The passage seals the connection between sex and violence and then, in the middle of a sentence, finally returns to the trial we saw briefly at the beginning of the story. We finally learn what the narrator might have discovered in her husband’s Internet browsing history. It’s an effective move. When I first read the story, I actually gasped when I finished the line and realized what it meant. What else could a story possibly hope to achieve?

What makes the story great, though, is that it doesn’t stop there. In the final section, our discovery is given emotional resonance. The narrator is talking to a friend who says, “Never get divorced…it’s cold out here.”

The distance between that piece of advice and what we’ve learned about the narrator’s marriage is what gives the story the evil chill of great crime fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s withhold crucial information using “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan” by Sarah Layden as a model:

  1. Figure out the effect you want the story to have. In the case of “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan,” the effect is the shock of realizing that a woman has married a man who may have murdered his wife. The obvious way to approach this revelation would be to put the reader in the room with the narrator when she first learns that her lover’s wife has disappeared—or when she discovers clues to his misdeeds on his computer. But if the point is to shock the reader (and not the narrator), then the revelation doesn’t need to occur in the moment that it happens for the narrator. In fact, because it happens in a passage about something else, it becomes that much more shocking. So, what will your readers find shocking or funny or heartwarming or poignant in your story? That’s the moment we’re going to surprise them with.
  2. Write a sentence that clearly states the shocking/funny/poignant moment. For example, Layden could have written this: “The week after my husband’s retrial and acquittal for murdering his wife, we went to a Mongolian barbecue.” Notice how the sentence doesn’t end with the shocking thing but uses it as the catalyst for something else: This, then this. You can use this structure for any situation, for instance this one: “The week after I farted loudly during my own wedding, people cheered and high-fived me when they saw me around town.” Try it. Write a sentence that states the shocking/funny/poignant thing and then moves on to whatever comes next.
  3. Edit out the best part of the sentence. In Layden’s case, this is the fact that the guy was on trial for murdering his wife. In my example, I’d cut the fart and leave this: “The week after my wedding, people cheered…” The sentence operates just fine without the excised information. We’re being shown the same scene, just without one detail.
  4. Find a moment to slip the detail back into the story. Because you’ve already shown the readers the scene, you’re relieved of the obligation to convey the detail in scene. Instead, it can show up anywhere. This is what Layden does so masterfully. She writes a passage about other instances of sexual violence and then adds another to the list—which just happens to be connected to her. I could do the same thing with my example: write a passage about other farts or other embarrassing moments and then add in this particular moment. So, give it a try. Write a passage that lists moments (not necessarily experienced by the same people, just connected in some way) and then add in the detail that you’ve been withholding.

Good luck and have fun.

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2 Responses to “How to Withhold Crucial Plot Information”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Sarah Layden | Read to Write Stories - July 23, 2015

    […] To read Layden’s story “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan” and an exercise on withholding plot information, click here. […]

  2. 12 Exercises Inspired by the Best Writing from 2015 | Read to Write Stories - December 22, 2015

    […] Find the entire exercise here. […]

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