How Storytelling Is Like Tantric Sex

Man, that title is a gratuitous grab for eyeballs, isn’t it?

I HAVE NO SHAME.

Further, I have very little understanding of Tantric Sex — I mean, I understand that something-something “enlightenment-through orgasm,” and something-something “erotic-ecstatic-consciousness,” and I’m pretty sure the penis becomes a magic wand and the vagina becomes a wizard’s hat and then Harry Potter yells “ejaculus patronus!” and a baby appears.

What am I, some kind of Kundalini Master? Whatever.

What I do know about Tantric Sex is the same thing probably the rest of you know, which is that one of the touted erotic techniques is the withholding of orgasm to intensify the power of the sex and its climax. Through this technique an average sexual encounter goes from the right old rumpy-pumpy to the coupling of two divine beings on a bed of writhing ghosts, and the standard orgasm goes from the popping of a tube of cookie dough to a mystical shower of embers from an iron-struck blade on the sexual force of that godly hornball, Hephaestus. Or something.

I’m probably losing the thread.

Point is, orgasm must be withheld.

And this is the lesson I want you to take away as a storyteller.

The power of withholding is key to telling a good story.

When describing something, withholding description allows for the audience to do work, to fill in the gaps, to bring something to the table and be a collaborator (at least in spirit) to the work. Further, by withholding description, you do not overwhelm with needless illustrative information. (Do we need to know what every lamp and sidetable and fingernail and skin tag look like? No we do not.) Pull back. Leave room. Do not overwhelm.

When creating characters, withholding aspects of that character (but teasing the existence of those aspects) gives us a sense of wanting to know more, more, more. A character with unrevealed secrets or stories interests us: we’re the kids at Christmas morning tearing through a pile of presents hoping to get to the big reveal at the end (a new bike! a BB gun! a Barbie dream home! a Turkish scimitar with which to behead thine enemies!).

When orchestrating plot, withholding information is the act of creating mystery, of removing points of data and replacing them with throbbing, pulsing question marks. Every question mark is a door that the reader wants desperately to walk through — and will do so almost to the point of compulsion, and compulsion is what we want, the compulsion to pick up the book again and again, the audience hungering to get back to the pages of the tale or to read the next issue or see the next episode. Litter your tale with unexplained mysteries big and small. The question will drive them: what does that strange tattoo on the woman’s back mean? Why did the wife kill the husband? Who is the one-eyed man? Who put the bomp in the bop-she-bop?

When instituting a relationship, withholding the culmination of that relationship has value. The will-they-won’t-they of romances. The denial of vengeance between one character and another. The mending of a broken friendship. The audience will continue to tear through pages, hoping to see the hero and the villain have their climactic showdown, hoping to see if the two star-crossed lovers will ever uncross the stars and come together, hoping to see if the sea-king and the mer-girl finally realize that they are father-and-daughter.

When complicating the goals of the protagonist, withholding victory and denying her success or an escape or an answering to her own questions is key — the audience is bound up with the protagonist and they want to see her safe and happy and vanquish darkness and find love and learn the truth. But by continuing to dangle the carrot, we see the protagonist urge forward through the story and we see the audience trailing along with her.

When determining the relationship between the protagonist and the audience, consider also withholding knowledge from one half but not the other. Things the characters know but the audience does not goes a long way toward establishing that gravitational mystery noted earlier. Withholding information from the characters but then revealing that information to the audience is dramatic irony, and makes the audience feel like they’re “in on the secret,” and further, become eager to know when the damning information they possess will finally catch up to the characters on the page.

At the end, this is about withholding what the audience wants. It’s about not showing the money shot right up front. It is about denying them narrative orgasm. It’s about build-up. And tension. And hesitation. And uncertainty. And fear. And lust. It’s about a trail of moist little morsels pulling them deeper and deeper into the tangled wood. It’s equal parts baited trap and Stockholm SyndromeIt’s about not giving up what the audience desires most and at the same time making them thank you for the privilege of being denied.

Further, it is the act of withholding that helps ensure that your climax is not a soft, limp rag plopping down on a cold linoleum floor. Save things to reveal until the end. Reserve those key sought-after moments until the final act.

Release them upon reaching the final thrust of your story and few will leave unsatisfied.

Do this poorly and withhold too much and you’ll have them leave the story frustrated. Or confused. Or feeling needlessly punished and left out in the cold. But do it right — dangle the carrot, drop the crumbs, give them a taste of what they can have if they keep on reading and watching and consuming the tale — and you’ll have them scurrying after you on their hands and knees, eyes bugging, tongues wagging. Hungry for their narrative fix.

GREAT NOW I NEED A COLD SHOWER. And a tissue.

21 comments

  • Withhold too long and you might find readers experiencing the chafing friction of spent creative lubrication. On the other hand, the thing I’d point out is that it isn’t always the purpose of the story to do the finishing. There is a whole side of the vicarious entertainment industry based solely on its power to tease, not end in completion or resolution. The story sets you up and leaves you hanging. It ends and leaves you wondering and imagining what came next. It doesn’t give you the act of finishing. That’s something for you to take home and complete on your own. The story ends and and it is now up to the reader’s own imagination to complete the tale. Which curiously makes the reader more involved than if the story gave everything away in a blizzard of sweatily spelled out punch lines and revelations.

    Leaving the door open for interpretation and not tying up loose ends puts that task in the hands of the reader. Its not always withholding for the sake of a better climax but withholding for the sake of putting that final thrust in the hands of the reader. If the reader is purely passive and has no say in crafting a conclusion the story won’t be nearly as engaging as a story that asks the reader to do some of the work. The more the climax happens entirely on the page the less it happens in the reader’s own imagination. If its possible to be too obvious in the course of a story its possible to be too obvious at its end. We can give the reader too much, not just in the beginning of the story, not just in its middle, but in the ending as well. Don’t just blow the reader’s mind with how well you the author performed. Let the reader be an active part of that mind blowing experience. Let them be blown away with what they themselves contributed to the orgasmic conclusion. Its not just “happily ever after…” but what came next. If the reader is truly invested in the characters you can’t properly wind things up with an author’s conclusion.

    What happened to Bilbo and Frodo and the elves after they sailed out to sea? That’s not an end scenario as much as its the open door to new adventures and stories. Didn’t you ever imagine what came next? Isn’t that withholding of information still important?

  • I’m in the ‘tie up your loose ends’ camp, myself. It’s one thing not to detail out their whole lives afterwards, it’s another to not explain all the things the author set up. If they make several references to a minor character’s tattoo and then never explain why it matters, I’m going to think their writing is sloppy or that they forgot about it. In other words, fire your Chekhov guns; don’t leave them sitting on the mantle.

  • When it comes right down to it, this is probably my biggest writing issue: knowing what and when and how much to tell or withhold. The line feels too blurry. If you want the audience to know that your protagonist is a minor Sherlock Holmes but that’s not their entire character, how do you seed it carefully enough to be interesting without overtaking? I get so freaked out by the idea of over-writing that I’m constantly paring back, which is, of course, how you wind up with not enough for the reader to grab onto. Conundrum.

  • More and more I think the real art of writing, the skill that must be tested and honed, is this. Figuring out what to put in and what to leave out, on every level. From the first moment of creation to the last spit-shine of revision.

    You’ve managed to put this so eloquently and put words to things I couldn’t explain. Thanks!

  • The downside of Tantric sex is that there is another person involved which adds the possibility of major disappointment when the time comes………….(did you see that? that pun right there <<<..)

    However, this post shined a beam of hope to my major let down of a weeks worth of work down the toilet. (nope, i gots nuthin left to add to the theme here. That's disappointment for you. It sucks as much as it blows……..oh wait!! ha!)

  • I don’t really think readers would feel “left out in the cold” so much as to think that the author was amature. Too much ambiguety tends to make the story hard to read, for the reader is literally thinking half the time “WTF am I reading?” (like the meme), and will soon lose interest. You may have a very sneaky, clever, well-thought out hidden meanings to things that you have been crafting for years, and are aching for people to find out what the hell is really going on, but if you chose to overemphasize ambiguity, the reader will never know that. A puzzle at some point ceases to be a puzzle and becomes a mess.

    A simple truth:
    It doesn’t matter if it took you two years to craft a mess with a lot under the hood, or two months to craft a mess with nothing under the hood; a mess is still a mess. Above all else, the novel needs to flow. Too much ambiguity and confusion leads to a novel that will be used in future Chinese prisons for torture purposes. The Chinese can afford it, because until that shit gets organized, those words will be worth zilch.

    Do everything in the right proportions, craft a novel that anyone can read through, bait them cleverly and keep them guessing, manage to build up their expectations, then savagely knock them down like a 3 year old does to a model of the twin towers made of Lego, and no matter what genre of fiction you write in, I’d say you’d have a pretty darn good book.

  • It takes skill to hold a reader hostage from beginning to end, cover to cover. And there had damn well better be a payoff after I’ve gone twelve hours without eating or getting up to take a piss because I need to know what happens next. I just read two books that jerked me around all freaking day, and at the end I wanted to kill the writers because they finally unrolled some stupid shit that didn’t say anything or do anything and why was their prisoner in sorcery land if they weren’t going to deliver? Douche bags. Straight shot to the recycle bin. No blue-balling the reader, man. That is not cool.

  • Perfect example: waiting to see Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Epic anti-climactic orgasm, somehow, but orgasm nevertheless!

  • Great fucking post, Chuck. It’s also important to note that even when withholding orgasm, you still know it’s coming. And until it does, you’re still fucking. I’ll hand it off to the aptly named Alfred Hitchcock:

    “There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

    We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!””

  • Thanks Chuck, In my current book i just got through writing this is something i had to learn as well. For instance you dont want to tell the reader or the hero/heroine that the person they are talking to is a ghost.

    Of course you put in place a feeling that something is off while withholding that this person was a ghost.

  • Great post, and I too love that Hitchcock quote. I paraphrase it to students all the time, especially in this age of jump-scare film-making.

    Unfortunately the post did lead me to think of Lucille Bluth “getting off”, but other than that, top-shelf!

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