Withholding in Writing: Not Just for Relationships Anymore . . .

mystery hallwayI just read The Da Vinci code at the advice of someone great in my writing group, since I am about to (re)write an intellectual mystery/ quest, and that’s a big quest book, if not as intellectual as it might like to be. But hey, I’m not knocking it. I’m not imitating it, either, but I am studying it.

One of the things that struck me strongly over and over like a blunt object was the use of withholding in the book.

My class and I have been talking about withholding. We did a great exercise drawing from the techniques used in Michelle Richmond’s gripping novel No One You Know. She uses withholding a bit less bluntly than Mr. Brown but to great effect.

The main point is this: readers read, in part, to find out what is going to happen. E.M.Forster, sighing, agreed that this was the mechanism behind plot and that plot, though a lowly creature, was a necessary one. Questions pop into readers’ minds and stay, compelling the reader through the pages in search of the answer. Workshops tend to point out the causes of these questions as if they were a big problem: holes, as it were, in the story. In fact, answering those questions, filling in those holes, might well seal up everything breathing about your story and suffocate it. Hmmm . . . moving on . . .

Withholding can operate in many ways. Here are some examples:

1) Withholding from the reader. As when the chapter ends just as the characters (but not the readers) see what the murdered man wrote on the floor before he died.

2) Withholding from the character (and the reader). As when one character thinks, she was not yet ready for this information. Or she was not ready to think or talk about the terrible thing she’d seen ten years ago. And thus none of us get to know it yet.

3) Misleading the reader. As when a character is referenced as flashing his official badge, which would make you think he was the cop but he was the knight. Or when a character goes into the back of the car to take care of the person you believe is tied up in there, but in fact . . . well, in case I was only the second-to-last person in the world to read this book and you, my reader, are the very last, I won’t give it away . . .

My favorite kind of withholding is simply immersing the reader in the immediacy of the scene such that backward glancing explanations (why?) and forward glancing suppositions (what next?) are eliminated in the characters’ minds and left only to the readers. The character, for example, sees an old friend but does not think, “Ah, there is my college roommate. That time we stole the pig together and . . .” but instead sees this person crossing the street and throws open the door shouting, “What are you doing here!?” OR slinks down low in the seat and quickly turns a corner. In other words, the action reveals that there is much to know but the story is too caught up in the action to stop and explain. Not my strong point–I am a teacher, after all–but a great way to pull the reader through your tale.

All of these kinds of withholding–and many others–set up the story for revelation after revelation, and writers from Shakespeare to Dickens to, yes, Dan Brown, have kept audiences turning pages and not throwing tomatoes this way for centuries . . . Did you read The Da Vinci Code? Did you read it fast?

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  1. I loved the Da Vinci Code. I loved the feminine divine “intelligent” part.

  2. I agree, Thais–that part was surprising and interesting, although I did feel in the end he had to make the powers-that-be (church and state) the good guys, despite their seeming bad the whole way through . . . Thanks for commenting!

  3. The best example I can think of for withholding in something I’ve read recently is Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know. I was astounded at how well she managed to keep so much from the reader but in a believable way – right up until the end.

    • Cool, Lara. Thanks. I’ll have to check her book out.



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