Hey peeps. I’m standing in for Kristen this week while she is busy with something called “life.” So be gentle with me! I am merely a shadow of her great self!
Do you keep secrets? Things you don’t tell anyone else? You probably think that makes you a stand up guy (or gal!) You keep whatever is told to you by others close to the vest. Heck, you’re a pillar of the community you keep secrets so well!
But let me tell you something, if you’re a secret keeper, you may be a sucky writer.
Stop gawking at me! I’m telling you like it is! Sheesh. A man tries to do you a favor and what does he get!? Looks of scorn and rolling of eyes. Patience, my apprentice.
If you are a “secret keeper” you are doing a disservice to your reader and yourself. Notice the quotes there? Good.
Warrior writer again here. Bob references the sage advice of John Saul, who says, “Don’t be a secret keeper.”
What precisely is a secret keeper, you’re probably wondering about now, right? A secret keeper is someone who doesn’t tell you what the story is about until you get to the end. See, if the reader can’t identify the story with some level of rapidity (boy, that really sound like I was smart, writing rapidity, didn’t it?) then everything else you the writer does–exposition, settings, any characters–will be confusing to the reader because they don’t know what the hell the story is about! (Huh…there’s a book called Secret Keeper. Wonder if it’s any good. Hold on while I check Amazon. It’ll only take a minute!)
Okay, back. I might read it. Prolly not.
I think Bob should spend more time with secret keeping in his Warrior Writer Workshop, and I’ll tell you why. I have read many books that keep the secret until the end of the story, and that was okay! Seriously. Who wants to know who the killer is until the very end of the book? But that’s not what Bob is talking about. See, you, the writer can withhold certain key pieces of information (Bob does this a lot in his Area 51 stories) but you cannot keep the root conflict of the story secret. It doesn’t work. You can’t tell a story about a boy living on a farm, but secretly be keeping the secret about him being the president of the country, and there’s terrorist coming to take over the world, but I don’t tell you that until the end and it’s all a dream! POW! Most writers probably don’t even know they are secret keepers (if indeed they are) and structurally speaking, this weakens the entire story.
People often equate keeping secrets with building suspense, but how will I know it’s suspenseful, if I don’t know what’s going on!? Can you build suspense while still keeping secrets? Yeah, and people do it all the time, but what’s the point? Is your secret so flimsy it has to be hidden behind a screen until you jerk it out and yell, TADA! Ugh. Secret keeping can also be attributable to bad plot structure, but that’s a blog for a different day.
Of course, there have been plenty of secret keeping stories that have worked well. But, as Bob says, you still have to a) make the reader care about the characters, and b) still have rising action. Two stories that immediately come to mind that don’t tell you the real story until the end, but are still good, are the Usual Suspects and No Way Out. Of course there are numerous novels that do this, but movies are often times easier and simpler to pick a part. So I give to you these as examples. The neat thing is, even though the Usual Suspects throws you on a spin at the end, it still escalates the action throughout the story. You still know that the dudes are being chased by Kaiser Soze. Also, in No Way Out, you are with Kevin Costner as he muddles his way through the story and tries to figure out what’s going on, while all along being the actual bad guy they are looking for. Hell they even give you the ending in the beginning of the story. The Matrix is another good one. You don’t know what the Matrix is, but as the movie goes on, you realize that not everything is as it should be. The writers reveal the Matrix about a third of the way into the story, but before that, they introduce some things that make you freak out (Trinity jumping across the buildings….but wait! One cop can do it too!!). They do build suspense, without revealing the real world as a computer simulation.
One thing Bob says, (and while attribute a lot to Bob here, I am in no way granting him “Godhood” and I think he would agree that most of his teachings are more guidelines for writers than hard and fast rules.) if you keep secrets, you potentially alienate your readers. See, just keeping a secret does nothing, because I (the reader) don’t know there’s a secret, so how can I get excited? Well, I can’t of course.
You can actually tell if a writer is a secret keeper from just reading the query letter and synopsis. If you read the query, and it doesn’t tell you what the root conflict of the story is, the writer may be a secret keeper. They also might be just a sucky writer, but I think Kristen’s already covered that in an earlier blog post. Also, if a writer can’t tell you what his story is about in a few sentences, he might be a secret keeper.
Are you a secret keeper? Can you tell what your story is about without saying, “I know it doesn’t sound like much, but there’s a HUGE twist at the end!” ?? Might you be a secret keeper and not know it?
I have known you, my friend to be wise beyond your years. I’m feeling like a guilty child in church on Sunday morning. The preacher is speaking directly to me. Aren’t you?
This topic deserves some serious contemplation, considering the premise of my book is built on a huge secret. Maybe it’s time for another rewrite?
Awesome blog, Jay! This is such a great topic too. As an editor, I am constantly trying to get this very point through to new writers who feel crushed when I have to tell them that their brilliant twist is actually annoying and will only render their work unpublishable.