What’s in the Box: Thinking ‘Inside the Box’ to Create Suspenseful Writing
What’s in the Box | Image Courtesy Kyle Pearson (Licensed Under CC BY-ND 2.0)

ALL THREE BOYS held their breath while Brian forced a key into the worn lock of his grandfather’s weathered steamer trunk. “Was this the right key?” Brian thought. And more importantly, what was the secret that Grandpa had been hiding all these years . . .

We writers are constantly striving to maintain our readers’ attention. We can accomplish this, of course, through a carefully constructed primary plot. But we can also make use of other more subtle techniques to propel the reader forward. A particularly fun way to add intrigue is through a simple technique I like to think of as the “what’s in the box” teaser. 

The underlying premise is simple: Present a character (and thus the reader) with some type of container thought to hold an important or mysterious object, and then delay revealing the contents. The space between presentation and revelation can be as short as a few lines or span the book’s entirety. In either case, the reader will surely want to know—as did Brad Pitt’s character in the film Se7en, which is probably the greatest example of this technique I’ve ever seen—“What’s in the fucking box‽” [Ed. Note: Interrobang usage entirely warranted.]

Indeed, this technique is continuously employed, in both books and film, to generate added layers of suspense. Sometimes, as in the example above, it’s done to quite dramatic effect. (SPOILER ALERT: It turns out the box Pitt was screaming about in Se7en contained his wife’s severed head.) Other times, the technique is more subtle and adds just a touch of intrigue before a quick reveal.

“We, along with the uninformed character, yearn to see what’s inside.”

Consider, for example, the following excerpt from Night of the Living Dummy, one of the many titles in R. L. Stine’s bestselling Goosebumps series:

It took Kris a while to locate her sister. Lindy was half hidden behind a large black Dumpster at the far end of the yard. Kris shielded her eyes with one hand to see better. Lindy was bent over the side of the Dumpster. She appeared to be rummaging through some trash.

“What’s in there?” Kris called. Lindy was tossing things around and didn’t seem to hear her.

“What is it?” Kris called, taking a few reluctant steps toward the Dumpster. Lindy didn’t reply. Then, slowly, she pulled something out. She started to hold it up. Its arms and legs dangled down limply. Kris could see a head with brown hair. A head? Arms and legs?

“Oh, no!” Kris cried aloud, raising her hands to her face in horror.

Though this is certainly a more reserved example of the “what’s in the box” teaser, the result is the same: We, along with the uninformed character, yearn to see what’s inside.

When employing this technique, bear in mind that the “box” could be just about anything. It could be a suitcase, a dresser drawer, the trunk of a car, even an entire room. To extend the concept further, you could also hide your mystery object inside a USB drive, a roll of film, a cell phone, and so on. The possibilities are endless.

As for the secret Brian’s grandfather had been hiding, it’s later revealed in this original short story that he had fallen madly in love with a woman named Élise while stationed in France during the Second World War. Though he returned home to his wife, Brian’s grandfather proceeded to write Élise for the rest of his life. Contained inside the old weathered trunk was every letter, every photo, every memento he ever received from this woman, his heart’s true love. All this disclosure reminds me . . . always make sure to eventually reveal what’s in the box—no one likes an unsolved mystery, except maybe Robert Stack.

For further discussion concerning suspenseful writing, take a gander at any of these fine sources:


 © 2015, K. E. Olsen | All Rights Reserved