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 Syndrome. It’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.