Monday, February 6, 2012

The benefits of spilling your secrets

I like to tell people I would do great in a zombie apocalypse because I have the hoarding mentality of the Great Depression. Maybe it's the fact I grew up poor, maybe it's the fact that I'm only slightly less selfish than a 2 year old with a My Little Pony collection, or maybe it's just part and parcel of my personality. I save new clothes for months before wearing them, I hide sugar packets in my desk in case we run out at work, and I hide my favorite foods in the cupboard so the partner-in-crime doesn't get to them before I do.

As a writer, this has translated to hoarding secrets. At first I thought I was saving the conflict for the climax. You know, Pedro can't find out Martha is really his daughter until 250 pages in. That big of a secret, you need to hoard it, right? Because if you give up all your good secrets at the beginning, you'll have no story left to end the damn thing.

What I really found out was that I was being lazy and protecting myself from actually having to work for something. Keeping that secret for 17 chapters meant nothing happened. People ate dinner, walked from one room to the other, but nothing really momentous occurred because I was waiting. As a result, my middles dragged and my climaxes were obvious from a dozen chapters off.

So this go round, I issued myself a challenge. When you have a secret, share it. Anytime something occurred to me - Martha is Pedro's DAUGHTER - I had to reveal it. Maybe not to the characters themselves, but to the reader. Because tension lies in the divide between the reader's knowledge and the character's knowledge. If the reader knows Martha is Pedro's daughter, but Pedro doesn't know it, we have tension.

And in the end, books are just secrets we're waiting to reveal. All stories are a string of revealed secrets, and we as the reader keep reading to find out what they are. What will happen when Pedro finds out? What does Martha want? Why didn't Pedro know Martha was his daughter in the first place? Secrets.

So my challenge to you: when you have a secret, spill it. You might be scared that you'll run out of secrets like I was, but what you'll find instead is that more secrets rise up through the cracks to answer the questions behind the secret you revealed before. And the climax you end up with is so much greater than what you started with, because you had to think harder to top yourself. And that's entertainment, my friends.


Tere Kirkland said...

Ha! Funny how the mood changes when the reader knows something the characters don't.

Way to spill, Jem!

Laurel Garver said...

Great point, JEM. In an early draft of my novel, I had exactly the same issue--hoarding the juicy stuff. I found that leaking secrets bit by bit helped tremendously with pacing and definitely took care of making the middle meaty.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I used to make this mistake too. Great idea, JEM, for increasing the tension by leaking the secret to the reader sooner.

Andrea Mack said...

Great advice! Sometimes hinting at something in the novel can be a disappointment unless there's that bit by bit building of suspicion or guessing in the reader's mind. I love the idea of making a chain of linked secrets, so that one leads to another.

Anonymous said...

I've just discovered this. It works SO much better in the story and helps bring things alive. And you're right, more questions do arise.