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The Power of Secrets

Is your story riding a powerful concept, occupied by empathetic characters, solidly written–and falling a bit flat? One aspect of the novel that may be missing is buried truths. Especially half-buried ones. The ones we know are there but can’t see the answers to.

People love a mystery. Even if you’re writing fantasy or literary fiction, readers are hooked by unanswered questions. Why is the old man so bitter? What is the significance of the the scar on her neck? Why is the stranger so driven to help? What does the protagonist actually feel for her sister’s fiance? The secret can be profound or rather common, but it provides a hook. You generate a bit of excitement by making people guess. They like to guess. Why? I don’t know. It’s hardwired. Why is it fun for kids to find hidden Easter eggs? A stupid game, and perenially popular.

You already know that the outcome of the story must be in doubt. There must be at least a believable chance that the protagonist will fail. But beyond that major question remains a fertile landscape of mysteries.

What if we salt in a lot of questions–and withhold the answers for a while?

On Not Telling So Much

One reason we are so eager to tell readers everything is that we don’t want them to be confused. That’s a laudable goal, but don’t go overboard with it. Readers are endearingly willing to put themselves in the hands of a good storyteller. They will trust that the answer is forthcoming. Really.

Perhaps we under-utilize mysteries because as author, we want to show that we have the story all worked out. We have a cool plot element or aspect of the milieu and we want credit for justifying it. We are timid to introduce something slightly odd and leave the reader–horrors!–guessing. But guessing is what we love to do, even about dumb, little stuff. It’s why we wrap Christmas presents. It may just be a tool set from Lowe’s but while it’s wrapped up there’s mystery.

A side benefit to establishing curiosity with half-buried truths is that you get a break from weaving in information. The bane of my writing life is salting in what the reader needs to know. What is the balance between knowing and forward movement? (Otherwise known as pacing) I don’t know. Subject of another blog. Better yet, you write that one.

How Much to Withhold

Hey, I don’t know. It’s a matter of feel.

This drives me crazy. Take pitching onto the green in golf. How hard do you swing for crying out loud? You have to go ten feet, let’s say. Or twenty-three. Swing too hard and in you’re in the bunker. Not hard enough, and you’ve sickeningly landed five feet short of the green. A matter of feel.

Leaving aside golf, my rule of thumb is that the more important the secret, the longer you can make them wait. If it’s a small mystery, we may forget about it after a hundred pages. Sometimes, though, you can neatly answer a quirky and fun thing in the last few pages. A small revelation can be satisfying after the high drama of the last chapters.

But, basically, I can’t teach you how much to withhold. My advice: be bold. Take some authorial power. Do it. Try it. Don’t be too influenced by your writers’ groups’ demands to know. They sometimes flail around for something to catch you doing wrong. They’re trying to be helpful, even so. But sometimes reading a scene a week they miss the power of not knowing.

Plan What to Bury

Those of you who’ve followed my blogs know I’m big on planning. So here is where I admit that I plan well in advance the large pieces I’m going to bury and where the secret is revealed. So, for active secrets, I plan when the clue is offered and when the answer is revealed.

It’s not completely methodical. I sense moments when I can tweak the reader’s curiosity again on that point. I refresh the question. But for the most intriguing half-buried questions–those are in my plot outline. And of course for small mysteries (e.g.: why does the four year old call her mother by her first name?) those can be–and really must be–handled on the fly.

Learn From Bold Writers

There are some writers who are fearless when it comes to deferring information. I recommend Ian McDonald: Brasyl. Catherynne Valente: In the Night Garden. David Marusek: Counting Heads. Alastair Reynolds: Pushing Ice.

So go forth and withhold. Wrap up your information like presents; leave them on the table with gaudy wrapping or in a plain brown box. It’ll sit there and raise questions. We’ll read on until the contents are revealed.


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