Winner of the Seven-Day Writing Competition: Cynthia Gunderson (& How to Leave Readers Wanting More)

I was blown away by the quality of submissions to the seven-day writing contest I recently held on my Instagram page. Everyone did an amazing job!

One submission stood out from the rest because of the author's masterful use of suspense. With just enough detail to picture the scene, yet not enough to fully understand everything that was happening, this submission captured my interest immediately and made me want to know more about the characters and the why behind their actions. Congratulations to Cynthia Gunderson, winner of this competition!

Here, with her permission, is the winning entry. Below, I'll talk in a little more detail about what made this submission great.

“I remember that,” he says with a soft smile. “You were so worried about your parents finding out. Remember when you called?”

I look straight ahead, my heart pounding. The waves crash lightly on the beach, sending bubbles in a rhythmic fan across the sand. Pulling my sweater close to my chest, I take a deep breath and choose my words carefully.

“I must have been really out of sorts. I don’t recall talking to you about it. What did I say?” I ask, attempting to put on an air of nonchalance.

He leans forward, wrapping his arms around his knees, his eyes still fixed on the surf. “You were completely broken. I could barely make out what you were saying between the sobs, but ... I knew what was in your heart.”

I sneak a peak toward him as an expression of peace settles on his face. Somehow, despite the fact that I have no recollection of this interaction—or any interactions with him—I can’t help but let my walls down. He seems to care. Truly and honestly. How is this possible?

“And then it was worse than I ever could have imagined,” I say. “I lost everything. My brother and I still don’t talk. My parents split shortly after that, and the girl—”
“We don’t have to talk about it,” he offers.

But I can’t help it. The words pour out of me. I tell him about the morning after when I found her body, limp and helpless on the side of the walkway. I tell him about how I couldn’t stop arranging her hair while I waited for the police. As if somehow that would make it better? That her perfectly smooth ponytail would somehow undo what I’d done? Bile rises in my throat as the images flicker across my retina in perfect detail. The way they have every night for almost two years.

“I know,” he says, his voice almost a whisper. “I know.”

My voice suddenly sticks in my throat as tears collect at the corners of my eyes. Even though I just flayed open the deepest, darkest conglomeration of my experience, it still feels wrong to cry in front of someone I only met a few hours ago.

“Why do you think you’re holding on to it so tightly?” he asks, stretching out his legs, closing his eyes, and lifting his face to the late afternoon sun.

His hair hangs down his back, blowing lightly in the breeze. I inspect his face for any feature that could prompt recognition, my mind reaching for a possible connection. His cheekbones? No, I can’t remember ever meeting someone with similar bone structure. Maybe if his hair were shorter? I
imagine it, but still, no. I squint, attempting to morph his face into one with more baby fat, and less rigidity. Less ... living.

His eyelids flutter, and I quickly turn away. “I’m not holding on to it,” I say stubbornly, scooping fistfuls of sand into my palms and squeezing them until they compress into temporary spheres.

He nods. “So it’s out of your control?”

“Don’t you think if I had control over any of this I would’ve done something by now?”

“I hoped you would. But here we are,” he says, turning toward me.

As his eyes meet mine, a shiver runs through my entire body. I open my mouth to speak, but my jaw hangs slack. It’s the eyes. I know those eyes. It’s not even the color that activates something within me, but the kindness. The certainty. He knows me. And I think I used to know him.

The first thing readers are likely to notice is that this story leaves a lot to the imagination. Who exactly was the girl who died, and how did she die? What was her relationship to the main character? For that matter, what's the main character's name? And, of course, the real crux of the story: how does the "stranger" know the main character's deepest, darkest secret?

But notice that, as you read, you start guessing. You start filling in information the author has left out from your own imagination, even if you're not aware you're doing it. And that's what makes this story so powerful. By leaving out certain details, two things are achieved: one, the reader is left wanting more, and two, the reader can, to some extent, create their own version of the story, which strengthens their personal connection to the characters. These intentional omissions also encourage the reader to read the story multiple times to scrape out as much detail as they can, trying to piece together what might have happened.

Of course, it's possible to omit too much detail. If, for example, there were no clues at all about what happened in the main character's past, this story wouldn't be nearly as intriguing. But because there are hints scattered throughout the story, the reader doesn't get lost in trying to turn meaningless details into a coherent plot. There's just enough information here for the reader to make some guesses and rule out others, which is key to a successfully suspenseful story. 

As I read this for the first time, I was intrigued by the amount of detail explaining the characters and their surroundings. By the end of the story, though we don't know their names, backstories, or intentions, I felt like I had met these characters and taken part in their conversation. This was largely because of the attention paid to how the characters reacted to each other - especially the main character to the "stranger" - but also because it's explained right away that they're sitting on a beach. (Notice that the story never says directly they were sitting on a beach; instead, it describes the scenery and the reader is guided to the conclusion that it's a beach. This is a masterful example of "show, don't tell.") Because we know where they are and a little about their personalities, we can make tentative conclusions at the very beginning that shape our ideas of where the story could go. And that's another way this story hooks the reader's attention. It begins with just enough detail to help the reader start guessing, which in turn sparks their curiosity to know if their guess were right. This makes them more likely to read closely and finish the whole story than if all the information was given right away.

Details about the characters as they are now is a good way to avoid giving too much information or leaving out key plot points. Rather than diving into backstories right away, this story builds up to backstory by first explaining the present situation. Readers aren't left guessing what's happening now, except to the extent that the main character is confused about the "stranger." (This, too, draws the reader in because they feel the same as the main character - puzzled.) Instead, readers can guess about the past from the present. The main character is upset - why? The "stranger" seems confident and compassionate - why? Is there any chance this could all be an act? Readers usually ask questions like these subconsciously, but they play a huge role in their perception of the story. The more questions the author can force readers to ask, the more likely readers are to stick around to get their questions answered.

And finally, of course, it's important to package detail so that the reader is satisfied by it and wants to notice it, even if they're reading rather quickly. Readers tend to skim detail unless it's exceptionally well-written, and in suspenseful writing that relies on subtle hints to guide the reader to the conclusion, details are crucial. This story makes me want to read the details, because it makes the details look intriguing. Sentences like "the waves crash lightly on the beach, sending bubbles in a rhythmic fan across the sand," create a picture in the reader's mind rather than simply explaining a fact (e.g., "they were on the beach and the tide was high"). This helps the reader get the most out of the story by making it as visually appealing as possible, without the use of images.

Once again, congratulations to @cindygwrites for her amazing submission! I'll be hosting more competitions like this soon (perhaps with slightly longer deadlines), so be on the lookout and be sure to follow me on Instagram if you haven't already. Also, check out @cindygwrites' profile here!