Malcolm Gladwell, Author of Outliers, Teaches Suspense in Storytelling

Written by MasterClass

Oct 24, 2018 • 2 min read

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Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing

What makes a good story? Celebrated journalist Malcolm Gladwell is a master storyteller, with a decades-long career as a staff writer at the New Yorker. Gladwell’s books include Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Outliers: The Story of Success, What the Dog Saw, and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

According to Malcolm, the best thing about telling someone a story is their reaction to it. As a writer, your job is to get people to keep moving through your story. Gladwell’s writing style depends on an excellent sense of pacing paired with the deliberate and calculated withholding of information to keep the reader guessing until the very last word. This is known as creating suspense.


The Difference Between Suspense and Surprise

There’s a subtle but big difference between suspense and surprise. With suspense, you’re playing with your readers’ expectations of time. They know information is coming, they just don’t know when. Surprise is where you tell your reader something and the reader had no idea it was coming. Both tacks can be fun and effective. The more opportunities you present for your readers to react within your story, the better. There are lots of tools to accomplish this: Set their expectations, then subvert them. You can also invite them in through your character development. Your reader will respond to the quirks and flaws of your subjects, and the more engaged they are with the reading process, the more memorable what you’ve written about will become.

Use “Why” to Structure Your Story

Both suspense and surprise, as well as traditional storytelling, require a firm grip on structure. Read about Malcolm Gladwell’s advice for how to structure a story, presented through the lens of his popular “The Ketchup Conundrum” article, published in the New Yorker.

When Malcolm set out to write “The Ketchup Conundrum” story, he started with one question: Why hasn’t ketchup changed? Malcolm used this trick of posing a head-scratching question effectively in his collection Outliers; each of his essays investigates the success stories of people like Bill Gates and the Beatles. Malcolm starts with a question: why are the successful Canadian professional hockey players all born in the beginning of the year? Asking yourself a question is a great way to get started on researching and structuring a story. But in order to create suspense, be careful not to give it all away too soon.

Keep Your Reader Guessing

Although you might associate suspense with action movies or thriller novels, Malcolm Gladwell's work shows how suspense-building techniques can apply to nonfiction as well. Gladwell begins with big ideas and questions, connecting them to unique characters and situations. According to Gladwell, narratives include the presentation and resolution of problems. In other words, you “set up and solve.” If your story features an element of suspense, try presenting questions, but no answers. You want your reader to ask “why?”, and to keep turning the pages until you reveal the answers to them.