Who doesn’t love a good secret? When a friend shares one, it’s an intimate expression of trust. Secrets can provide advantages that lead to power and wealth (think insider trading). When science unlocks nature’s secrets it can reshape our view of reality and upset the social order (think Copernicus). And, of course, a secret revealed can shatter relationships (not so fun) or lead to healing.
It’s no wonder fiction writers love secrets. They turn plot points, build anticipation, and twist endings. O. Henry’s finales amuse. James Joyce’s epiphanies enlighten. The secret baby trope in romances throws relationships into chaos, and the reveal at the end of a mystery puts a murderer in jail and explains all.
For writers, secrets can be spice or the main meal. They are both powerful and dangerous because, as with sensitive information disclosed by a friend, trust is everything. Handling secrets, hints, clues, telltales, explanations, and revelations well can make the difference between readers who are enthralled and readers who are disappointed.
The first thing to know about secrets is two varieties exist in fiction. There are secrets kept from the readers (story secrets) and secrets kept from the characters (ironic secrets). Generally, the reader doesn’t know who-done-it in murder mystery until the final scene when the detective adds the last piece of the puzzle (though we love to guess along the way). By contrast, in a romantic comedy, the reader generally knows the secret of one of the lovers early on, and the other lover (along with other key characters) is left in the dark. Hitchcock loved irony. Almost all his films had danger looming in the background, creating suspense. He called this his bomb theory.
I’ll discuss irony next time. This post will focus on story secrets.
The reason we have spoiler alerts is because much of the fun of story secrets comes from the surprise. We are sense-making beings, and nature rewards our efforts with a thrill (probably endorphin-based) when we put the puzzle together.
Clues Readers can only solve the puzzle, or properly appreciate its solution, if the storyteller provides clues. Now, obviously, the job isn’t done if a list of clues is provided at the beginning of the story. Clues must be sprinkled throughout the story in a way that seems natural and supports the pacing of the story. Before any revelation, all the clues for that disclosure must be available to the reader. And the visibility of the clue must be appropriate to the story and the genre. In a challenging mystery, clues usually need to be carefully hidden. In a comedy, they may be obvious to everyone but the fool at the center of the action.
Sometimes the clues come from the behavior of characters. This can be a subtle thing, but the key to doing it successfully is to make the behavior consistent with the character’s knowledge, motivation, stakes, and personality. This may mean the character acts “out of character,” appropriately raising red flags. Often characters will seem to overreact when someone comes too close to a secret. But, by the end of the story, the actions and reactions of the characters must be justified by the facts, as known, at any given time. (Getting this right often requires subtle rewriting. It is rare that a first draft achieves the right balance.)
Revelations A revelation can be any piece of accepted information. It can be a fact that creates a turning point, redirecting action. It can be a key element of a resolution. It can be the resolution itself. Revelations expose character, shift power, point to solutions, explain, and can flip an ending (think of poor Oedipus).
An effective revelation is exquisitely sensitive to the timing. Too soon, and the impact is muted. Too late and the reader feels cheated (or has already ceased to care). Most writers make the first mistake (especially in early drafts). They are eager to share the information ahead of time, often as soon as they discover it. Withholding is good. Moving the revelation as late as possible in the story usually creates more tension. One more thing is essential: the revelation must be clear. This should be obvious, but sometimes, having lived with the story, the writer doesn’t know more explanation is needed. And sometimes the writer is too busy being clever and mysterious.
Resolution There is no more effective way to anger readers than in messing up the disclosure of a secret at the end of a story. The secret must be fair. It must make sense within the story world and fit the clues. It must be material. If it doesn’t matter much, you’ve created a shaggy dog story. It must be surprising. If readers have figured it out and are sure of what’s coming, it will be a disappointment.
For extra points, make the resolution evoke strong emotions. And, if you aspire to greatness, go the James Joyce route and make it meaningful.
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