Shhh, I have a secret for you. I think it’s a good one. It has to do with writing, a writer’s realization that I stumbled onto today as I was reading Ansen Dibell’s Plot on my way into the office one morning, and I think it has the potential to take my writing to the next level. I’m serious; it was that big of a deal to me, and I thought I’d share it with you, just as other writers have passed on their secrets to me.
It started while I was reading about exposition. Dibell was explaining ways to incorporate exposition into our tales by using a character to drop the information in. “Or parts of the exposition can come out, a little at a time, in a discussion among several characters, maybe spread across several scenes.” As the meaning of those words fluttered to my brain by way of my optic nerve, every book I have read seemed to have opened up, assaulting my thoughts with every last detail of their plots, and I don’t even know how to explain what happened next. Somehow my thirty-something mind analyzed them all and sent an epiphany to my consciousness, and somehow I blundered into a key idea in fiction that I don’t think is ever talked about, at least not specifically in the terms that I will address.
Are you ready for it?
It’s a secret.
Or more appropriately, secrecy is the secret.
The things whispered to characters behind another’s back. Things characters keep from themselves (and therefore the reader) until a crucial plot point.
To Kill a Mockingbird, The Road, Bag of Bones, The Brothers Bishop, A Tale of Two Cities, World War Z, A Game of Thrones, Odd Thomas, Curtain, Hyperion, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter--all of them seem to hold secrets within its covers. In fact, I can’t think of a story that I consider a good read that doesn’t have secrets. I can’t say that all books with secrets are good, but I can honestly say that I haven’t read a story or book that doesn’t have secrets that I have enjoyed.
By their very nature, secrets seem to “allow” many other essential elements to happen almost automatically without as much work by the author to introduce those elements. I’ll describe two but as you absorb this, I’m sure others will present themselves.
Donald Maas’ Writing the Breakout Novel for example urges the aspiring writer to put tension on every page. In popular fiction, readers are even less tolerant of a lack of tension than literary readers. Imagine two people sitting in a coffee shop, a man and a woman, who are discussing an upcoming (insert favorite sport team) game. The scene is important only to move the plot because these two will end up meeting (insert your favorite player for previously named favorite sports team). Dull, dull, dull. It needs tension. Now imagine that the man has had a crush on this woman but she is married to his best friend. Or, if you prefer, pretend the man found out he has terminal cancer and only has months to live, but being very private has vowed not to tell anyone. Or that the woman is a serial killer. Or maybe they are a couple and she is unhappy and planning on breaking up after the game. The very fact that the secret is there, can ramp up the tension for the reader.
Secrets can also drive characterization. If we look at this same scene, we can see that the types of secrets someone holds can say a great deal about that person’s character. It speaks to the character’s moral code, their beliefs and which of those beliefs are not appropriate to share. Does the man secretly love Lifetime movies? Is the woman a cousin to the man’s ex?
Secrets can also allow the plot to develop. If the man in the previous scenario is in love with the woman who is married to her best friend, how will introducing the dashing (re-insert sport’s celebrity) who seems to like the woman affect the man, and therefore the plot? I think you see where I’m going.
Admittedly there are some times where the secret may be unknown to the reader. Very true. Dashboard Confessional’s song, “The Secret’s in the Telling” from which I’ve taken as the title of this entry tell of two people in a secret romantic relationship. Listeners never learn who these people are and why their relationship is a secret is never explained. As a writer don’t feel compelled to have to reveal all secrets, but by all means hint at them, deliver them through subtext. Behavior such as an overreaction to a smile or a car speeding off can hint that there is more going on here than meets the eye or something is not quite right.
In “The Secret’s in the Telling” many great examples of observable behavior exist that a clever writer could subtly employ in his or her own story in order to show something sneaky is happening. (Aside: Notice how secrets also lend to showing rather than telling.)
This concept is similar to what thriller writers know as the McGuffin. The classic example, brought to us by Hitchcock goes something like this. A spy is after a roll of film. The audience never needs to ever know what is on the film, just that what is on there is so volatile it could have global ramifications.
For along time, I have wondered what is missing when someone critiquing my work would say, it’s all there, it’s story but it doesn’t feel like a book. There is a fine distinction that I cannot define which makes a story “feel” like a book. Having reviewed some of my own stories, I now suspect that this phantom element, which ironically was a secret to me until I uncovered this concept, turns out to be secrecy. I’m curious, if after reading this, other people will feel the same way. Maybe it’s just me.
I’m not suggesting that this is a 100% absolute hard-and-fast rule--I can’t think of any rule in storytelling that has not or cannot be broken if carefully planned. And as much as I think this is an innovative approach, it is in no way new--think twist ending, think every murder mystery--just a new way of looking at my own and others writing. At least it’s a new to me.
So there you have it, part one of what will hopefully be a series on writing like a magician. I’d tell you what’s next except…
…well you know.