Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Do You Keep Secrets?

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! Some say that in the world of romance and significant others, there shouldn’t be any secrets. That’s a debate for another time and another blog. I’m here to chat about the secrets that writers should keep.


Secrets and unanswered questions can turn up the volume on tension, which is almost always a good thing, right? Secrets, big and small, plant questions in readers’ minds and make those readers wonder and perhaps read on in search of answers. Why is that character limping? Where did that scar come from? Why does she have a crazy fear of trains? Who is that lurking, shadowy figure?


While I was revising Buck Fever, my amazing and gifted editor advised me to hold back on one particular “big reveal” for another chapter or two. I did and what a difference this made. Instead of giving away too much explanation too soon, I dropped hints like crumbs. I tried to let the audience enjoy the intrigue and the mystery while also giving them the chance to discover things for themselves.


I think about this editor’s advice when I am reading a novel with secrets or information that is held back. And I think about this advice every time I’m about to reveal information in a story that I am writing. I ask myself: Can this wait? Will the plot benefit from keeping this secret a little while longer? What other plot developments might sprout from not sharing everything with the reader until absolutely necessary?


What do you think about secrets? If you’re a writer, do you keep secrets as long as possible from your readers?

When you're reading, do you feel the tension of a lingering secret or unanswered question?

54 comments:

  1. I enjoy a well placed secret. I think it adds a ton to characterization. I, too, ask myself if something can wait. Too much too soon can throw the reader off and not enough will cause them to lose interest. It's a delicate balance.

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    1. It IS a delicate balance, Emily, as with so many aspects of writing, right? : )

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  2. I love secrets. I love the tension they can bring on. I love following the crumbs to the cookie.

    Hope you had a great Valentine's Day!

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    1. "...following the crumbs to the cookie."--that's great, Loree!

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  3. I keep them as long as possible cos most times I haven't a clue what they are when I write! LOL! That's the panster in me!

    Happy Valentine's! Take care
    x

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    1. That's funny Old Kitty! I hadn't considered this technique of keeping a secret or secrets.

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  4. Secrets definitely serve a purpose. When I'm reading, I don't like it when an information overload occurs in the first few chapters, and understand the nature of a story in that it has to unwind as we go. Bring on the secrets.

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  5. Exactly, Joanne--information overload can weigh down a story.

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  6. Thanks for your post Cynthia. It seems to me that leaving some unanswered questions (secrets) in our stories, makes for a richer tapestry for the reader.

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  7. Excellent post. Everyone has things they choose not to share, even in real life. Seriously, I don't need to know every time my hubby thinks I'm an idiot. lol Or vice versa.

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  8. Secrets are great! I love the breadcrumb idea. What I hate is if an author drags it out toooooo long. then I start rolling my eyes...

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    1. Great point, Carol. Too long is not good, either.

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  9. Secrets have a certain amount of suspense, anticipation. I like 'em!

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  10. I love secrets. It's a real art knowing when to reveal them.

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    1. Yes, a balancing act. I'm always impressed when an author does it well.

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  11. Great tip. I like when a character intrigues me because I am wondering about him/her.

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  12. Brilliant post! The main thing is make sure you aren't dragging the secret for too long to create false suspense. This is especially true if the secret belongs to your mc and the book is in first person. Sometimes it works. Other times it feels contrived.

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    1. Thanks, Stina! Great, great point. False suspense is frustrating.

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  13. What an awesome questions. I'm not sure how well I do this, but I sure do love it when other authors do it well. I loved the secrets and breadcrumbs in "The Help." The author gave just enough information along the way to keep the reader from becoming frustrated. And there were several secrets going on!

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    1. Julie, The Help is a great example. I want to reread that novel, learn more from it.

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  14. Building tension is crucial to keeping the reader turning the pages. The most fearsome of movie monsters are the ones barely glimpse until the final scenes, aren't they? Great post, Roland

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    1. Absolutely, Roland! The monsters example is excellent.

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  15. I love secrets in stories. I love writing them too. I will say they are sometimes difficult to edit because it's hard to know if you've been too vague or too obvious. Yay for second opinions!

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    1. Where would we be without our trusted readers, right, Lynda?

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  16. Yes to both. And possibly to a fault in the case of my writing. It's such a delicate balance between giving out just the right amount of info and giving out too much/too little.

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  17. Very timely post for me! In my new WIP, a lot of the characters have secrets, and I need to work out what gets revealed when.

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    1. Marcia, when to reveal what is the hardest part for me. Good luck!

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  18. Holding things back is a good thing, I totally agree!

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  19. I'm the reader who sometimes gets annoyed if questions are left un answered for too long. The big revel is different tho... Agree to hold it off for the perfect time... Just the little things need to be answered.

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    1. You bring up an interesting point, Michelle. Maybe if a writer reveals smaller secrets as the story moves along, the big reveal can be put off a bit longer.

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  20. I recently had a critique that suggested I wait for the reveal, too, and it was eye-opening! Though I haven't figured out how to do it yet, I definitely saw the advantages of keeping some informtation from my readers.

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  21. Great! It may take a bit of work, but I think you'll know when you find the perfect spot for that big reveal, Janet. Good luck!

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  22. As I work on revisions now, I'm looking for the best spots to drop hints before the big reveal. This is something that I could not have done in the first draft. It seems with each revision, the connections become more clear as well as the scenes where the secrets work best. Great post - thanks for sharing!

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    1. Hi Dawn! Thanks! I find that working on secrets is easier in revisions, too. First drafts have their own issues. : )

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  23. I love having secrets in my stories. While I'm writing I keep thinking, "Heh, heh, heh. I know something here that you don't know." The problem is I keep wanting to reveal it and I have to hold off until just the right time.

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    1. Ha! Funny, Cleemckenzie. And finding that right time for the reveal can be tricky, right? At least for me.

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  24. I love reading about secrets. The reveal is awesome. I have a secret in one of my WIPs, not with the MC but with another major character.

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    1. Now, that's interesting, Medeia. Most people probably expect the secret to be with the mc.

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  25. Hints like crumbs. That's great that's how I'm trying to plan my WIP.Yes my novel has secrets. ;O)

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    1. Thanks, Madeleine! And hurray for those secrets in your novel!

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  26. I love this! Sometimes I have to go back and place the clues that lead up to a reveal. A little late to your post. I hope you had a great Valentine's Day!

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    1. Ah, you're never late, Adrienne. : ) And I'm like you: I go back in often to place clues or revise the clues leading up to the reveal. It's always a work in progress. : )

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  27. Absolutely - I love secrets in both my reading and my writing! That's probably the biggest thing that keeps me turning the pages.

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  28. Hi Cynthia - you always have the most thought-provoking posts! I love reading your blog. So, from one animal-loving writer to another, I've awarded you the Versatile Blogger award. You can find it here on my blog: http://lindabenson.blogspot.com

    Cheers!

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  29. And turning pages is always a good thing, right, Susan! : )

    Aww, thanks, Linda! You're so nice! : ) I'll come on by your blog to check it out. Thanks again!!!

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  30. I did this too in my WIP, and left breadcrumbs. I'd actually cut it from an earlier scene and moved it to later during revision. Most of my CPs have loved not knowing, and getting little hints, but I had one CP that said, at the first breadcrumb, that I was breaking some rule and since the character knows, it was wrong of me not to dump it right there. Then I got some contest feedback that said the GMC wasn't clear for the hero (this is a romance, BTW), but how can it be clear if the motivation is part of the big reveal? I'm confused...

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  31. Well, whenever I have differing opinions, I try to weigh them all before making a decision about what works best for my novel. Sometimes it's a gut level sense of what is or is not working. Not all opinions are necessarily right for your novel or what you're going for. In the end, you probably know best. Good luck!

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  32. Cynthia,

    I agree that secret does keep the tension humming. I enjoy a big reveal with a secret that takes me by surprise.

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