From Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass

Holding Readers: Controlling Information

Learn how to use surprises, guessing games, and suspense to invite readers into your story.

Topics include: Cultivate Surprise • Invite Readers to Guess • Invite Readers to Identify Themselves • Withhold Information With a Purpose • Play Surprise and Suspense Games


Learn how to use surprises, guessing games, and suspense to invite readers into your story.

Topics include: Cultivate Surprise • Invite Readers to Guess • Invite Readers to Identify Themselves • Withhold Information With a Purpose • Play Surprise and Suspense Games

Malcolm Gladwell

Teaches Writing

Learn More


I have a very good friend who does this thing which drives me crazy, which is that when you say something to her and you're pretty sure you're telling her something interesting and new, she will always act as if she knew it all along. Or, that it's not a surprise. She will essentially say, yes, of course. And that, Am makes me unwilling to tell her other interesting things because I don't get the reward. The reason we tell people funny, interesting stories is we want the reward of them having that look on their face and being surprised and being pleased at hearing something new. And there is no greater encouragement than me going, really? That's amazing, right? That keeps you going. As a writer, your job is to get people to keep going. So just even if you don't feel it, even if you've heard it before, you need to say, wow. You need to practice that openness in the face of someone taking the risk of telling you a story. Story in conversation is a risk. I am telling you something without knowing how it will be greeted. Whether you'll greeted with disdain, disgust, enthusiasm, boredom, excitement. Conversation works because we're risk takers. And if we continually are met with disdain and boredom or disgust, we stop engaging in conversation, in meaningful conversation, right? It shuts down. So your job as a writer is to create an environment where stories can be told. Part of that, sometimes that requires faking it. But actually 99.9% of the time it requires an honest examination of what you really did know. The easiest thing is for you to say, you tell me a story, and for me to say, well, I knew 75% of that, so what I'm going to do is I'm going to take credit for knowing all of it, right? That's your ego speaking. Oh, they had this little bit of insight which I didn't have, but I'm going to fake it and say, oh, I knew that. The first thing you have to do is to stop that impulse, is to understand that even if that little piece you did know is only 2% is to say, oh, you added to my knowledge of this crucial subject by 2%, and that's meaningful. I now look at the world from a slightly different angle as I did before. So cultivating surprise, I think, is a central part of what it means to be a writer in the world, a writer about ideas at least in the world. And I have always-- the more I know, in a certain sense, the easier it is for me to be surprised, right? Because I get better and better and better at identifying a little piece that I didn't understand before. The more opportunities you build into your pieces for reactions, the better off you're going to be, the more engaged and memorable-- engaged they'll be with the reading process and more memorable what you've written will become. So I did it more when I was starting out than I do now, but I was like, if there is any opportunity I can give to let the reader, to invite the reader into the same thought process I'm going through, then I do it. You know, in the thing I'm run...

Transform the ordinary

Ketchup. Crime. Quarterbacks. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, these ordinary subjects have helped millions of readers grasp complex ideas like behavioral economics and performance prediction. Now, the renowned storyteller and best-selling author of Blink and The Tipping Point is teaching his first online writing class. Craft stories that captivate by learning how Malcolm researches topics, crafts characters, and distills big ideas into simple, powerful narratives.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I haven't finished learning, I listened to all lessons and will mull over them wor a while, read the suggested readings, do the suggested assignments and hope to get some feed bak, so I will definitely come back and listen again. Thank you!

Malcom has a way of cutting through the gray, speaking to me right where I am. Loved it! I believe his class will help any level of writer become more authentic in their work.

This class has taught me numerous awesome new tools to incorporate into my writing!

Changed my whole perspective ! Many thanks ! I hope to write someday a hearttouching piece that will reflect Malcolm's style at the core.



The part of the discussion in which Malcolm talks about....the reward of telling someone, something..which they didn't already very powerful. Additionally, trying to find a way to surprise the revealing X..when you were expected to reveal genius. I am a trial lawyer and an aspiring writer....I am trying to learn to master the art of the both fields. Great lesson !

Fred K.

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Ramanathan S.

Quite a lot. First is his passion. And then his clarity as to why he was doing whatever he was doing.


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Stephen G.

I love the suspense piece and realize now I canuse it in my non-fiction writing... great tool to hold the reader's attention.

Lisa P.

The section on selectively withheld information was enlightening. I spent weeks searching for a way to teach fledgling artists how to draw a foreshortened object. Finally, I placed a vibrant background behind a chair, and told the students to draw only the background, and nothing of the chair. Every student produced a vividly-dimensional rendering of the chair by purposefully ignoring what was supposed to be the most important object in the scene.


In college I went to Jesse Garber’s house every week with a case of beer to watch Monday Night RAW. We knew the value of pro wrestling well before Duane Johnson, its biggest star, was lauded as the world’s highest grossing actor due to his charisma, famous work ethic, and ability to disparage folks with a smile on his face. Monday night at the Garber residence was the place to be. Every week I showed up, and paid my rent in the form of some obscure object that I found on the way to the beer cooler. The more useless, the better. It was a weekly gift that Garber never asked for but I knew he wanted. The time I brought the stores largest watermelon and then refused to cut it for everyone. The time I brought an eggplant and then cooked it at 3am for the world’s worst late-night snack. The time I brought Boones Farm because it was the grossest thing I could find. So there I was at the grocery store, a case of beer in hand, staring at a rough sketch of an infant child. The sketch itself had been the focal point of many false rumors, the most popular that it was an image of Humphrey Bogart as an infant child. Mr. Bogarts mother was an illustrator so like all good rumors this one was rooted in some fact. While she did make similar work in her career, she did not create the masterpiece I was currently looking at. The real story is much less Hollywood. Dorothy Hope Smith was from Westport, Connecticut and worked as a commercial illustrator specializing in babies and children. She therefore jumped at the chance to join a contest asking for drawings of babies for $300 in prize money to the winner. This would amount to $4,405 today so a pretty reasonable sum for a contest. One of Dorothy’s neighbors had an infant child so she took out her sketchpad and charcoal and got to work. She submitted her sketch of Ann Turner (who grew up to be a mystery novelist) with the understanding that it was a representation of what the illustration could be. The judges had a different understanding, they wanted the current sketch in all its simplicity to be the image of their new brand. Dorothy’s sketch won the contest, she won the money, and three years later her illustration was trademarked due to its popularity. Seventy years later I’m staring at her sketch, the Gerber baby, on the grocery store shelf and it all comes together. I have devised the greatest gift that Jesse Garber will ever receive in his life. I purchase a box of Gerber baby food, and like Dorothy, I get to work. I enter Garber’s apartment to start our Monday night festivities and I can see he is expecting his weekly rent. Not to disappoint I pull out the box of baby food and he revels in its glory. Every “e” inside the word Gerber on the box has been turned into an “a.” The greatest and most useless gift in the world for a college aged beer drinking wrestling fan – Garber baby food.

Brian A.

OK. This is what I wrote. It's rough but I thought I'd share. >> Pixar Animations Studios was almost a failure. The founder, Ed Catmull, started working for George Lucas after Star Wars a New Hope was released and became a gigantic hit, to build out the technology and methods of using computers to enhance movies. Ed’s driving passion was to build a full-length computer animated feature film and working for Lucas Films was a stepping stone to that end. I feel like I can refer to Mr. Catmull as Ed because he grew up in the 1950s and 60s in Salt Lake City, UT and I grew up in rural northern Utah in the 70s and 80s. Utah is a great place to live and grow up. Ed describes himself as one who only speaks when he has something to say. I imagine him as a quiet, thoughtful guy. He admits that once PIxar was purchased by Steve Jobs from Lucas Films, the first thing he turned to was books so he could learn how to manage and run a company. He sat and consumed management books, often in just one sitting, trying to make up for a lack of formal experience. Not only was Ed new to leading a company, but he was trying to deal with Steve Jobs. The version of Steve Jobs that was recovering from his ouster from Apple; The Steve Jobs that was trying to get his new company, NeXT, off the ground as a competitor to Apple. I didn’t ever get to meet Steve Jobs, but Ed discusses him in his book “Creativity Inc” like this: “Steve’s domineering nature could take one’s breath away.” What could Ed have done, as a quiet intelligent guy, to deal with someone who, right after lecturing Ed and the Pixar leadership team about the importance of listening when they dealt with Disney in their initial talks of producing Toy Story, spent almost the entire hour-long meeting being the only one who spoke? Toy Story, by the way, took five years to produce. While Pixar had won some awards for film shorts, they were originally a hardware company operating in the red. They had great technology for the time, but couldn’t find the market for their equipment. They were led by software engineers who wanted to make a movie and tell stories, not open retail stores. Back to the question -- how could Ed deal with Steve Jobs? I think I know part of the answer, and it comes from one of my obsessions - ancient writings (especially those from sacred texts and the stoics). Epictetus said “If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters -- don’t wish to seem knowledgeable. And if some regard you as important, distrust yourself” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 13 a). Ed himself writes in “Creativity Inc” “There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.” Throughout the production of Toy Story Ed learned to work with Steve Jobs. He found that one of three things always happened when they disagreed: 1) Ed would, after taking some time to consider what Steve had said, come back and continue arguing his point until Steve Jobs would understand and agree; 2) Ed would realize Steve Jobs was right; 3) Ed would do what he wanted, regardless of what Steve Jobs said. And so now I look at myself and wonder, of all the areas I need to improve, where am I really not applying the philosophy of listening, watching, and learning and instead am overextending myself? In business, those who are quiet and thoughtful are too often viewed as weak and ineffectual. But it’s time that we abandon that idea and push for more thoughtful approaches. Just the other day I was in a meeting where new ideas were being pitched and it was clear that the humblest team to pitch their idea was the most effective because their language was specific, couched in context, and open to feedback. Other ideas were pitched using over-generalizations and industry buzzwords. Luckily, the executive in the room could see through BS and was excited by the good ideas humbly pitched, not the mediocre idea that was pitched as inevitable.

Julie M.

I thought Gladwell's explanations about narrative, suspense and suprise were very valuable. Great stuff!

Elijah S.

In Malcolm's podcasts and books, the elements of suspense and surprise are immense. In the way Malcolm words his podcasts captivates the listener making them want to listen to the end just in case they didn't miss any details of the information or story.