The Announcement: Creating Suspense by Spoiling the Plot
Creating suspense is one of the most difficult tasks of writing a novel, especially for writers coming to the genre from short stories. It is hard to know when to reveal information on a larger scale. The rules of the short story often no longer apply, and a writer making the leap might feel unsure about how much to say and how much to leave out in the interest of maintaining the reader’s attention.
Faced with this, a writer might choose to withhold details in an effort to not spoil too much. However, the opposite approach can be used to much greater effect. In a novel class I’ve been teaching, the students and I often talk about a technique I’ve come to call The Announcement. It appears in the opening pages of countless novels. Think of The Announcement as a brief plot summary; it doesn’t mention everything that occurs in the book, but it points to where the novel is heading. It is particularly effective if the book announces events far from the current situation.
Take, for example, the opening pages of Giovanni’s Room. The novel begins with the narrator, David, drunk in the south of France reflecting on the events that have upturned his life. After a few pages, he says:
I was thinking, when I told Hella that I had loved her, of those days before anything awful, irrevocable, had happened to me, when an affair was nothing more than an affair. Now, from this night, this coming morning, no matter how many beds I find myself in between now and my final bed, I shall never be able to have any more of those boyish, zestful affairs—which are, really, when one things o it, a kind of higher, or, anyway, more pretentions masturbation. People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. Hella would not be on the high seas. And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.
Before this, the reader can only sense David’s despair. One knows he has a fiancé, Hella, but the finer points of his relationship with Giovanni isn't yet clear. This passage does not spell out those details for the reader. That is not the goal of making The Announcement. Rather, it states what is going to happen to one of the main characters in this novel—a character important enough to give the book its title. Giovanni is facing death and, critical to the aims of the novel, David can only think about himself.
A different novel might have withheld this information. Why tell the reader so early that Giovanni is facing the guillotine? Won’t that ruin the surprise later on in the book? Yes, it does, but the surprise isn’t the point.
Baldwin is aiming for a different kind of surprise. Rather than reading for what happens, the reader will read to see how the details of the novel unfold. Furthermore, by announcing Giovanni’s execution, Baldwin shifts the focus from plot to character. The reader is left wondering about David as a narrator.
In the same paragraph he announces Giovanni’s imminent death, he confesses that he cannot be trusted, that he is too “various.” There is something wallowing about these confessions; there appears to be no sense of scale. Earlier, he describes the forthcoming morning as the “most terrible” of his life. However, once the reader discovers that Giovanni is soon to be put to death, whereas David remains safe in the South of France, it becomes hard to see David as anything more than self-centered and maudlin. Revealing a plot point might spoil the plot, but it complicates the reader’s relationship to David. Who is this person? Why is he centering himself in the story of another man’s death?
This technique is most appropriate for character-based literary fiction. By giving away the plot, a writer can focus on the craft elements at the core of literary writing, such as character and prose style. In your novel, how might you expose a major plot point early in order to shift the focus away from the plot? What do you think you might gain from revealing instead of withholding?
ISLE MCELROY is a non-binary writer based in Brooklyn. Their debut novel, The Atmospherians, was named a New York Times Editors' Choice. Their second novel, People Collide, was named a New York Times Critics' Pick and a book of the year by Vogue, NPR, Electric Literature, and Vulture. Other writing appears in The New York Times, New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, The Cut, GQ, The Atlantic, Tin House, and elsewhere.