How to Drive Your Readers Wild With Hints and Story Hooks—Without Frustrating Them

How to Drive Your Readers Wild With Hints and Story Hooks—Without Frustrating Them

This week’s video shows you how to use hints and story hooks to keep readers turning your pages, while still timing your tension just right to keep from trying their patience.

Video Transcript:

We could argue that the single greatest job of a good story is simply that of convincing readers that something interesting is always just over the story’s horizon. We do this with hints and story hooks that, with any luck, will end up driving our readers simply mad with the desire to know what it’s all about.

An easy way to do this is by using secrets in certain characters’ pasts, or hidden information that the antagonist knows but the protagonist doesn’t, or vice versa. Even just an artful manipulation of the story’s tone to create some vague foreshadowing can often be enough.

But perhaps the most important aspect of this is timing. Usually, we’re going to want to plant those hints and story hooks as early as possible and wait to pay them off until as late as possible. A huge build-up to a secret that’s revealed in the next chapter is ultimately going to feel anti-climactic. A huge secret that’s not built up at all is going to feel like it’s come out of nowhere. But we’ve also got to be super careful not to draw out a secret too far.

When you tease readers with something they really, really want to know, you have to be careful not to tease them too long. Otherwise, they’re going to get impatient, sense that you’re toying with them, and possibly give up on the story in frustration.

One of the best ways to avoid this without having to give away your secret is simply to feed your readers little breadcrumbs of information. Every time you bring up the Incredible Fascinating Secret, make sure you’re offering readers at least one small new tidbit of information about it—a new clue. Your goal should be to keep whetting their appetite for the truth, rather than hammering away at the same beat on the same drum all through the story. Even—or perhaps especially—if you’re not going to reveal the secret until the end, then you must always keep in mind that secrets, hints, and story hooks must be an evolution of the plot, just like every other element in your story.

Tell me your opinion: How have you shared new information about your hints and story hooks to keep readers from growing frustrated with the wait to discover the truth?

How to Drive Your Readers Wild With Hints and Story Hooks—Without Frustrating Them

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Again, a helpful tip, KM. Thanks.
    BTW: Do you act? You have a very expressive face and I’m sure you’d be an excellent actress.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I was in a church play when I was eleven. I forgot my lines and brought the production to a screeching halt. :p

    • I have the characters argue over whether the “secret” should be told. In my book a young girl is reunited with her family. There are terrible secrets involving her parents. She has to face the people her parents hurt. The girl’s grandparents argue whether the girl should learn the “entire truth”

      (Molly knows that her father was a vampire hunter and participated in the torture and massacre of the Stirling clan. What she does not know is that her mother was there at the massacre, and so was she.) The grandparents don’t want Molly to know what her mother did. The vampires think the child should everything, including the part the child played.)

      I have constant arguing and even a few fist fights to hide the truth.

  2. Great post!! And an issue I’m wading through at the moment right up to my chin…. 🙂 Thanks for the encouragement to keep at it!

  3. I know that this is a difficult thing to master, and to balance, in a story, especially a mystery story. I’m working on a story right now that has a mystery woven into it. My biggest fear is that I’m being too nebulous and not letting the reader have enough hints. I don’t want to confuse them as much as I don’t want to frustrate them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The good thing about mysteries is that they’re based on clues. There’s always a new clue around the corner to keep readers interested.

  4. thomas h cullen says:

    The Representative’s length.. Just saying what matters helps.

    One of my life’s fondest memories – writing the Lane Cycler sequence.. A beautiful summer evening (with 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer in my head); moving from page to page, using the littlest narration possible – and acknowledging this, whilst doing it – but still nevertheless knowing just how suggestive the story’s language was..

    A story, involving the most quintessential of pay-offs, as well as set-ups.

  5. Excellent stuff – thank you. I am working through revising my manuscript and I’ve been told that there isn’t enough “conflict” in my story… I’ve read “outlining your novel” and will use it for my next story which I’m currently planning but the conflict thing confuses me… Any ideas?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The important thing to understand about conflict is that it is nothing more or less than an obstacle placed between your character and his goal. Identify your character’s goal in any given scene, then figure out what will interfere with his obtaining it. Voila, conflict!

  6. The flip side of this is thinking you have a great secret you’re holding back until near the end– only to discover your readers will have long since figured it out. In a murder mystery I was writing, I tried to ignore this dire possibility until it finally dawned on me that it might be better to spill that information right up front and work on other secrets instead. This involved changing the whole POV of the story from the one trying to solve the murder to the ones responsible for it. Major rewrite!!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! This is one of my pet peeves, especially in mysteries. If I end up figuring out the mystery ahead of the “brilliant” detective character, it both weakens my suspension of disbelief and, ultimately, bores me as I have to wait around for the protagonist to muddle through to the conclusion.

  7. I think this is even more true with series fiction. I find that if I provide a series of hooks, I can provide answers to each of them gradually. If I can answer the question that is most integral to the current story while leaving a small idea about my other hooks, I can bring the audience back for more while keeping them satisfied about what they learned along the way.

    I do a lot of free writing so I keep myself close to my audience. One of the seemingly small secrets in my first novel I finally discovered the answer to myself while writing the sequel. And by Book 3, when getting that answer is most important to the plot, I’m looking forward to revealing that secret in an awesome way for my audience.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      Lots of dedication, and patience… The best of virtues.

      • Very true. Actually, though, I am not certain how much of either I really have. That’s why I struggle with the idea of outlining. If I get the answer for myself too soon, I find I would rather be writing something else. I lost many of my earlier novel concepts that way. Though, if I can build up my dedication, I may come back to those one day.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very smart! Series *are* trickier because they’re so much longer. But if we can introduce smaller secrets in each book while preserving overarching secrets throughout the series, we can give readers the best of both worlds.

  8. Great advice. I noticed this technique (at times done well and at others poorly) used in “Little Women.” Some of the hints were just too obvious that it just spoiled the story. Others made me stay up half the night reading.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You know, it’s been so long since I’ve read Little Women that I can’t even remember what the secrets were. 😛

  9. I remember a MG fantasy I worked on about a year or so ago. I kept dropping so many foreshadowing hints into the opening scene, my crit partners kept getting confused. Timing is everything.

  10. My two cents : Never unfold the story points, but always unfold the CHARACTER … When you do this, your story is complete

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Character is story. When the character development and the plot work in tandem, instead of separately, everything works out.

Trackbacks

  1. […] But perhaps the most important aspect of this is timing. Usually, we’re going to want to plant those …read more […]

  2. […] hinting at a mystery to create tension, and frustrating your readers by not telling them enough. This post does a really good job explaining how to toe that […]

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