Holding Back




A newly invited neighbor introduces herself to the hostess’ sister.


Hi, I’m Jenny. I grew up in Chicago but my husband and I just moved here when he lost his job. His old boss was having an affair and my husband called him out on it. We think that’s why he got fired. As for us, we’ve had trouble conceiving, so we’re going through a surrogate. She lives in the area so it made sense for us to move here. I’m determined to give a little one a happy upbringing since my parents died in a car crash when I was two and I was left with my alcoholic aunt and a string of unsavory boyfriends.

SISTER politely excuses herself.

*          *          *

First impressions are important. While this is clearly an exaggeration of a first impression gone wrong, I would imagine that each of us have encountered people who tell us too much too soon or who pull us into their confidence so early on in the relationship we have nothing left to learn about them.

First impressions in fiction are every bit as important as they are in life. Just as the sister above politely excused herself, our readers will put our books back on the store shelf or delete the sample pages from their ereaders if the story opening does not connect them to our characters. Don’t underestimate the power of holding back information not only as a way to build trust with your reader, but also as a natural suspense tool.

Author, Hyatt Bass, does this very well in her novel, THE EMBERS. From the beginning, she drops little morsels of information that fill the reader’s head with questions and make it impossible to stop reading.

The novel starts on a hillside in the Berkshires. We read about a woman, Emily, and her fiancée visiting a place important to Emily’s past. 

It was odd how quickly nature reclaimed the land. Emily stepped out of the car and headed into the grass. Where the house used to be, there was only meadow now…She could see the whole room in her head—the big wooden table, the fireplace, the old fridge—could practically even see her brother, Thomas, slicing mushrooms at the counter. What would he think of that guy over there?”

The scene is active, interesting, and free of the burden of back-story. We don’t know why the house is important, why the house is gone, and why her brother doesn’t know her fiancée, but we do know that we are interested in the character because she has secrets. 

Another author who has mastered the art of holding back is Therese Walsh. In her novel, THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY, she gives us enough to keep us interested but holds back just as much. The book begins:

“I lost my twin to a harsh November nine years ago. Ever since, I’ve felt the span of that month like no other, as if each of the calendar’s thirty perfect little squares split in two on the page. I wished they’d just disappear. Bring on winter…November always lingered though, crackling under the foot of my memory like dead leaves. It was no wonder then that I gave in to impulse one November evening, left papers piled high on my desk and went to where I’d lost myself in the past with a friend. I thought I might evade memory for just a while at the auction house, but I slammed into it anyhow. It was just November’s way. Only this time, November surprised me.”

The mention of a lost twin, the past, and a desire to evade memory all work together to entice the reader to lean a little closer. It’s impossible not to accept Walsh’s invitation to enter into the pages.

In the party scene earlier, if the new neighbor had a bit of mystery—a bit of allure—we’d be curious about her. If she’d acted with introspection, allowed her voice to trail off when she thought she’d revealed too much, or somehow seemed vulnerable, the sister would have connected with her and sought to learn more about her. This connection is vital to establish with your readers as soon as they begin your story.

Take a look at the opening scenes of your book. Is every bit of information essential to the set up? Is there a way that you can turn statements of fact into curiosities or allusions? Can you find ways to intrigue your reader instead of filling him in on what he doesn’t know? Holding back is often what holds a reader fast to your story.

*Photo bybeautifullyWrong at DeviantArt.com


About Erika Robuck

Erika Robuck (@ErikaRobuck) self-published her first novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING. Penguin Random House published her subsequent novels, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL, CALL ME ZELDA, FALLEN BEAUTY, and GRAND CENTRAL, a collaborative short story anthology. Her forthcoming novel THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE releases in May of 2015. Erika writes about and reviews historical fiction at her blog, Muse, and is a contributor to fiction blog, Writer Unboxed. She is also a member of the Historical Novel, Hemingway, Millay, and Hawthorne Societies.


  1. says

    Love the cocktail party illustration, Erika! I actually know someone like this so it made me laugh (and whimper).

    You’re right. Holding back is so, so critical for luring the reader in. I’m not sure where the need to bare it all comes from, but my guess is that it’s a lack of trust in the reader and/or a compulsion to let someone know the whole brilliant concept (just in case the story goes unfinished).

  2. says

    Great post again! And timely for me. Just yesterday, I made myself cut a hunk out of my opening scene that I felt was a little TMI too soon. I couldn’t agree more on the importance of leaving questions in a readers mind.

  3. says

    I laughed at the opening too. It’s not only wiser and more mysterious to hold some information back, but it’s also amateur to introduce characters in that way (all at once). I’m surprised she didn’t tell us she was 5’5″, thin, with brown hair and blue eyes. :P

    Very good illustration of a very good point. Love the positive examples you provided too!

  4. says

    Great advice, Erika. Intrigue isn’t just for thrillers and mysteries! I love when there is subtle foreshadowing in an opening and then later when I’m reading the book, I think, “OH YEAH!”

  5. says

    turney took the word right out of my head. Iceburg.

    Which means, only reveal the 10% that’s necessary to understand what’s happening in the scene, and keep the other 90% hidden until the right moment to reveal it later.

    Great post! Thank you. :)

  6. says

    Such good advice, Erika. I love restraint in a writer. Some folks in my groups are frustrated by it and want everything right up front, but to me that takes all the enjoyment out of a story (I’m with sister). I love to be led with a trail of breadcrumbs. To me it’s the sign of a writer who is a master storyteller, one who is confident about how much to tell, and when.
    Great post. Am going to share this link with my workshops!

  7. says

    I snickered at the scene, as well. It read as a calculated overshare: a forced intimacy/”now that you know all about me, be my friend” tactic. Ugh! Who wants that, in real life or in writing? It doesn’t create an instant closeness with character. It simply drives away readers (and party guests. )

  8. Cindy Keeling says

    Great post, Erika. I especially loved your sample from “The Last Will…” I remember loving that paragraph the first time I read it.

  9. says

    I agree, Anne, I think it’s about reader trust.

    Turney–Isn’t Hemingway the iceberg guy? :)

    Cynthia–Thanks for sharing this with your group.

    Thanks so much for your comments, everyone!

  10. says

    Hehe, love it! This is something I always keep in mind because great books and characters really build to get you invested. When I’m reading there’s nothing I love more than WANTING to understand a character.
    And thanks for reminding me I still want to read THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY!

  11. says

    Here I was just minding my own business, reading your post, and boom! You mentioned my book. Thanks for your kind example!

    Now, I have to let you in on some secrets. My critique partners have convinced me that I have a problem holding back too much information in my drafts. Using the iceberg idea, maybe I reveal 2% or 5% — not enough. I have to go back through the story a second (or third or fourth) time to be sure there’s enough to entice a reader on. The next secret is that the intro to Last Will was one of the last things I wrote. The story must’ve had half a dozen beginnings before I settled on that one. I realized that I’d been doing something: Holding back the emotional nugget that might immediately connect readers to Maeve Leahy — the fact that she’d lost her sister.

    Enough blathering from me. I really enjoyed your post and loved the example from Hyatt’s book. Thanks, Erika!

  12. says

    Therese–I love those insights into your writing. That’s very interesting that you tend to hold back too much.

    Sara–LAST WILL is fantastic!

  13. says

    Well said. And that dinner guest — I’m afraid I’ve sounded like that off the page a few times myself! Thanks for the reality check.

  14. Skipper Hammond says

    I revealed little about my MC in her opening scene for a couple of reasons–1) she’s protective of her secrets, doesn’t even acknowledge them to herself, 2) too much info slowed down the scene. After a workshop where I was told don’t hold back, I revised, revealing more.
    This post has me thinking I might have been right in the first place. Think I’ll read the scene again, see what can be deleted without causing confusion. Thanks

    • says

      Skipper–It’s such a delicate balancing act. My critique group always encourages me to turn statements of fact into sentences that put questions in the reader’s mind. For example, my MC lost a baby. I started out stating that. They helped me tweak it so that it said “Her daughter would have been fourteen, but she couldn’t think of that now.” It was a simple change, but it allowed for a slower reveal so the reader would have to keep going to find out more.

      Like BK says, we have to keep honing our instincts to recognize the middle place.

      Great comments, All!

  15. says

    I think this is a great post. If we share every thing at once, what reason is there to keep going forward. Don’t feel the need to explain yourself, let the people in your book do that as they go along.

  16. Hallie Sawyer says

    Great examples, Erika! Beginnings are so important and you nailed why. Thanks for the great advice!

  17. says

    Revealing too much too soon is definitely an area I need to work in. Perhaps because I’m a spill my guts person in real life. LOL!

    It’s a fine balancing act. You can also go too far in the other direction and be so vague and uninformative that the story is boring and you set it aside.

    I just have to keep honing my instincts and learn to walk down the middle of that road.

  18. says

    Great advice and examples. I’ve editing my WIP and this is exactly the sort of thing I’m working on. Figuring out when to drop the key bits of back story without info dumping or revealing too much too soon.


  19. says

    A good story is like a developing friendship. You don’t dump everything on someone’s lap at once. You find the interesting, the jumping-off point where you decide if you are going to hold on to this person’s hand or not. The fun of the rest of ride is finding out who they are on the way. Cannonballer? Swan diver? Back floater? That’s the stuff of stories.

  20. says

    Very well said, Erika, and timely for me as well as a few others who commented before I did. Last night I cut a big chunk from my first chapter due to TMI. It wasn’t necessary and was boring and didn’t “move” the story along. I’ve been reading a lot of blogs this past week about making each line count. I must do that for my entire book. Thank you for the great post.

  21. Shannon M. Allain says

    Thank you for this, Erika. The examples are helpful and I definitely will be asking myself the questions in your last paragraph when re-writing my opening scene. Again. : ).

  22. says


    A great post on one of the defining elements of books I like the most: not everything pops out up front. I think this is what makes writing read like poetry and become art, when it achieves that magical delicate balance. Then, it’s just the rewriting, like Therese said, that keeps us searching for how to write it! Thank you, and Writer Unboxed, for helping us as writers on that journey toward excellence.


  23. says

    Great post. I think newbie writers are often caught in a tug-o-war. I’m doing a class with an editor and the editor told us to cut all the backstory in the first chapter. We were only allowed to keep the odd sentence here and there. Good advice, obviously. :)

    When showing the first chapter to a critique group, the critiquers all asked a myriad of questions. What does the protag look like? Why does she do that? Who’s that character? How do they know each other?

    Gah! I’m thinking to myself…well yeah…you have to read on to find out, people! ;)