Saving the Best
Order is very important in writing. Whether it’s words in a sentence, sentences in a paragraph, paragraphs in a chapter, or chapters in a book, how things are arranged has a profound effect on whether someone will read something. By the end of this post, you’ll learn how to strengthen your writing using the mantra: Hold, Build, Protect.
Hold off on the important information.
At every level of writing - meaning the sentence-level, paragraph-level, story-level, etc… - something always stands out as the most important bit of information. In a sentence, it may be the most interesting word. In a paragraph, it may be a key piece of description that reveals something important about a scene. In a story, it may be the moral lesson the protagonist learns. Whatever it may be, always putting it at the end is a good idea. People are information-seeking. We know there is generally a purpose behind whatever we read. Because of that, we won’t stop until we get that piece of information. More importantly, if we get the information early, we shut the book and say, “yeah, I get the gist.” Imagine a comedian telling you the punchline before saying, “knock, knock.” You would shut the door on their face and tell them, “thanks for the pizza.”
Build the promise of important information.
One side-effect of holding off on delivering important information is people won’t know whether there will actually be any important information. So, start with a promise. It’s the thesis of an essay. It’s a newscaster saying, “all this tonight at seven.” Or a novelist saying, “little did he know, this summer would change her life.” Doing this will add tension and drive your readers towards the end of your writing, whatever it may be. Imagine your friend coming in and telling you, “I had the most insane weekend of my life.” You’re going to sit down and listen to everything they have to say.
Protect the surprise.
The final and most essential duty you have when withholding information is to not ruin the sunrise. The goal, then, is to give your reader hints at what is coming, but not too many hints, or their anticipations might get dashed with a lucky guess. In addition to withholding, many writers use misdirection. Not lying, but placing some breadcrumbs that lead down the wrong path. No matter what kind of writing you do, the best people to learn the art of withholding from are Standup Comedians. They are masters at holding, building and protecting. Take this joke from comedian Myq Kaplan: “My girlfriend said she wanted me to dominate her. So I said, ‘Okay, let’s play scrabble.’” The first sentence is misleading. He uses the words girlfriend and dominate that suggests the next sentence will, in some way, involve sex. Then, the next sentence delivers the important information; being that he’s really talking about scrabble. Note that he holds the word scrabble until the very end. A great book on using concepts from humor in your writing is Comedy Writing Secrets by Mark Schatz and Mel Helitzer.
To recap, the mantra Hold, Build, Protect means to: withhold the juiciest information until the end of your writing; tell people up front that there is juicy information coming their way; and don’t give them any hints that might help them guess what the juicy information is. If you give too little information up front and your readers will be uninvested or even confused. Give too much information, and they might guess what happens next and, again, become disinterested. Finding the right balance of information to parcel out takes time and is a large part of learning the craft of writing. It’s often what separates novice writers from experienced ones. Dan Brown, writer of The Da Vinci Code has a lot of great thoughts on the subject.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you learned that it’s always a good idea to save the best for last!