Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Keeping Secrets (An IWSG Post)

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which means it's time for another installment of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, brainchild of über blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh. Click on the link for a complete list of participants.

I was on Goodreads the other day, checking out the reviews of Marie Lu's new book, Prodigy, when I came across one that contained a sentence that has stuck with me days later. That sentence was:



"I felt like Marie Lu was purposefully keeping secrets from me just to string me along."

And that got me thinking (so no, that smell wasn't your house on fire...) because I purposefully keep secrets in my writing. I'm attempting to write a fantasy series that, in theory, will contain six novels when finished, so I don't want to dump out all the bells and whistles in the first book. Instead I want to plant seeds; I want to create an air of mystery or something along those lines. Maybe I do just want to string my readers along—I don't know if that's the exact way to put it—but I personally love that moment when I'm reading a book and something sticks out as being odd (or incomplete or whatever), but later on in that book—or maybe its sequel—the author reveals something that makes me go "Oh snap!"

Do you do that too? Maybe you say something less dated than "Oh snap!" I don't know what you exclaim. Maybe you don't exclaim anything; it doesn't really matter. What matters is that because the author kept a secret from you, your mind is later blown by the awesomeness of some big reveal. It's a punch that might have been lacking had you been given the complete playbook early on.

Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that the person whose comment inspired this post is wrong. Everyone is entitled to feel however they want about the books they read. I'm just offering my opinion. And I'm pro secret keeping. You know, in case I wasn't clear about that.

I always start off giving an author the benefit of the doubt, that picking up on some small deviation—or maybe some incomplete information—isn't necessarily a sign that someone didn't do their due editing diligence (say that five times fast) or got lazy on the world building side of life. Sometimes that does turn out to be the case, but more often than not, I find it leads to something cool.

And I can only hope that when (if?) people read my novel, they end up feeling that way too.

But enough rambling from me. Let's talk about you. Are you a secret keeper in your stories? Do you love it or hate it in the books you read? And has anyone else had Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew in their heads since reading that 'secret keeper' sentence, or am I just the biggest dork in the world?

Not that I couldn't be the biggest dork in the world anyway.

Happy writing, all.

36 comments:

  1. I had to laugh at the last part, 'cause I was thinking of Azkaban all the way through this post. Serious - I just read it for the first time and finished a couple days ago.

    So yeah, I love it when authors slip little bits in that will later blossom into something cool, like how the Minister of Magic said Black borrowed his newspaper, and how that told Black "He's at Hogwarts," which later means something else. It rewards the reader (especially those with good memories), and helps link up things in a way that makes sense.

    The secrets I don't like are when you feel you're being strung along, page by page, like the author's holding a bag and shaking it and going, "Guess what's in here? Turn the page and see! Now turn another page! You can't stop now!" And you toss the book across the room 'cause you just don't care anymore.

    Rowling doesn't do that. She empties the bag on the seat next to you, like she's looking for a pen, and only later do you realize that the book she left there is whispering to you.

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  2. I think it depends on the genre. I, for one, don't keep secrets, but I present the info in such a way that the reader can choose how to interpret it - if that makes sense.

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  3. I love when books reveal only a little at a time and you're hit with a realisation later on. I think it'd be pretty boring if we knew all up front.

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  4. Secret keeping kind of belongs to stories. If the reader knows everything right away, then they don't have to read any further. Just like in real life, we run across dabs of information through gossip and things, only to get the full-fledged details (sometimes with surprising twists) at the end. I guess the trick is to make the hints as natural as possible, so the reader doesn't feel like they're being fed to them on purpose.

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  5. Secrets are good....

    Hugs and chocolate, MJ.

    Shelly

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  6. You're not a dork.
    Secrets fit well in some books. We don't need everything telegraphed to us.
    That said I'm probably not very good with them in my own work.

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  7. I like the "hinting at a later secret" aspect but I don't care for one of those full blown "where did that come from" events. Those feel unbelievable to me. It's because of that, I think, that I tend to reveal too much too soon in my stories. I always have to go back and fix those scenes.

    (Hey, if you want to, find me over at Goodreads. I'm new there. :))

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  8. I still say "Oh snap!"

    I don't mind secrets. I only mind when something SEEMS to be meaningful and isn't. Like if the author repeatedly describes a characters eyes, I start thinking there's some significance to the eyes and get really annoyed when it turns out they just have some kind of eye fixation and it has no significance to the story.

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  9. Oh, help! I often end chapters on a cliffhanger. I like reading books that give hints and don't spell everything out, it gives the reader a chance to think "ah ha! I was right (or wrong)". Still, as you say, everyone has their opinion. I agree with your commenters, though, you can't dump something on the reader totally unexpectedly.

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  10. I know what you mean. I have a couple of secrets I'm keeping in my story, and it's a little bit of a balancing act to figure out how much to reveal to keep it interesting and yet hold back enough to make it a mystery until the big reveal. Kind of tricky sometimes, but I love it when it works.

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  11. I think, in a series especially, it's great when an author makes just a passing reference to something/someone and, later on, they become a major force/player in the story.

    That kind of foundation laying is awesome when it's done right.

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  12. I don't like it when I know stuff before the MC when she/he should know. I think it does take skill to lead the reader without them feeling led. =)

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  13. Suspense, that's the word that comes to mind, and yes, I like it a lot!

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  14. Oh, I love secrets, especially when they are unfolded properly. Give me the clues and tie the package up all neat and tidy in the end, with NO dangling strings. To me that is art.

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  15. Definitely not a dork. :)

    And I love secrets in writing. A great secret keeper is Beth Revis. She leaves clues, but then it all comes out, and I'm all "wow!"

    In my own writing, I do keep secrets and drop hints, but since I'm writing from the MC's POV, things may happen, but she doesn't know the significance until later, so there is a hint of what's there, but I try to be all sneaky about it. LOL!

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  16. Uh, the story is a secret until it's read. That's the fun of reading (and writing) it. I'm sure there's an extreme to this that could be annoying for a reader. And extremes of readers that are more annoyed by it.

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  17. All the best selling fantasy authors do this. George R.R. Martin has entire wiki's devoted to A Song of Ice and Fire wherein people present evidence that Jon Snow is in fact a Targaryen or that Tyrion really isn't a Lannister. Some of these are intentional on George's part. But I don't think he's as brilliant as most fanbois are trying to make him out. I think he gets lucky in all that mystery because he's writing from the seat of his pants.

    So if mystery is what you are after, I suggest you make your story this huge sprawling epic and fill it with weird crap like six-toed statues. Then it will leave people to speculate what you are writing about. Later you can come up with some B.S. reason for why it's there and look brilliant.

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  18. I think keeping secrets is essential, otherwise there's no suspense or mystery. It's the reader being ticked off by it (being acutely aware of it) that causes the problem. It guess it comes down to skill and art about what, how much, when, etc. Nice post!

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  19. I think secrets are important in stories. They help keep the suspense and mystery of things and often succeed in keeping the reader hooked.

    Nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

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  20. The whole purpose of writing a good story is to slowly reveal it to the reader, isn't it? If you told the reader everything you'd have a chapter long story and it wouldn't be very good. I think it's all in how you write it. It can't feel like your keeping secrets... it shouls feel like your slowly revealing the story.

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  21. I am also pro secret keeping. I agree with Jessica, isn't that kind of the point? The trick is knowing when to reveal them. I've read books that reveal them late and ones that reveal them early. Both of the books I'm thinking of did it perfectly for their story. :)

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  22. I love secrets in stories. It makes it exciting. If I can figure out a book's secrets quickly then I lose my interest to read. The thrill is gone.

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  23. Secrets are fun! (And, yes, I had the secret keeper thought too). I think there's a difference, though, between skillfully disguising secrets and just blatantly not telling readers. The second kind feels more like a forced device.

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  24. I totally get what you're saying----and I love books that do this. I love it when authors give the readers credit, and don't spell out the "secrets" ... it's in the little details that we readers get to figure out on our own!

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  25. I love a good mystery, so planting seeds like that is great. But it is the best as a reader when I am surprised by the reveal, and then look back and think, "Oh, yeah! There WERE clues back there leading up to this, even though I didn't see them at the time." What I can't stand is when an author reveals something completely out of the blue. It's like they're reveling in their literary power to manipulate me! It IS the author's job to manipulate me, but not so I can tell so obviously. haha, if that makes sense.

    Allison (Geek Banter)

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  26. I love it when something that seems like it doesn't belong turns into something huge. Those are the stories I love.

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  27. Keeping secrets is the author's job, in my opinion. I haven't read Prodigy yet, but maybe Marie Lu drops bombs rather than sprinkles bread crumbs in it. It's an art to divvying out the proper clues at the right time and have it all unfold beautifully. That's what we all strive for, I think. So, yeah, an author has to have secrets or the book will be totally boring, but the revealing of the secrets over time is crucial. You can't just use a secret as a deus ex machina.

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  28. I love secret keeping in books and those "Oh snap" moments. My head also went straight to Harry Potter, so you're not alone :) Do the secret keeping stuff right in your books and I'll totally be reading them!

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  29. Oh, I LOVE secrets!! They're my favorite thing in books, TV shows, movies . . . not in real life though. They cause pimples, lol. But I may or may not have put one big secret in my own book;-) And I was just watching HP tonight, so I'm glad to discover your geek friendly blog today:-)

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  30. A bigger, overarching secret is fun. It can propel a series forward, but too many secrets can irritate me when I'm reading. It's that fine balance that seems to accompany every aspect of writing. Great posting today and good luck with your series!

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  31. I love the idea of secret keeping. I think that's one of the many things that J.K. Rowling did well in her Harry Potter series; the seeds planted in book one or two would only come to light in book seven. It adds to the depth of the world and emphasises the inter connectivity of the story arc.

    Jamie @ Mithril Wisdom

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  32. I think it really depends upon how it's done. Whether it's the author keeping the secret or the characters. When it's the author keeping the secret, I usually find it to be contrived and cheap. When it's the characters (and therefore natural), it can be cool.
    The Prestige and the The Illusionist. Prestige: brilliant! Illusionist: crap. Why? The secrets in Prestige are kept by the characters, but, in The Illusionist, they hide things we should have seen, but they just didn't tell us, making it completely manufactured.
    I actually did a post about that way back when...

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  33. First of all, I totally thought of Harry Potter when you said secret keeper.
    Second, I love that moment when you read something and realise it links back to a moment earlier in the story that you thought was insignificant. It makes it more fun when you read it the second time round.

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  34. I do feel there are examples of secrets, or revelations that could have and should have been discovered sooner, but were purposely skimmed over to try to draw out the suspense. However, I write mysteries and I believe that exposing answers too soon can kill the momentum of a book. :)

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  35. I love writing and reading secrets. I'd be disappointed if there weren't any.

    Oh, and Sirius Black is always in my head.

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  36. ROTFL, I'm all, "Oh, suh-NAP!" when there's a big reveal in a book (or TV show, though I try to keep it down in a movie theater). I'm like you, a seed-planter, and I enjoy having an opportunity to put stuff together. But I wonder if maybe that commenter referenced something different, like maybe an author concealing from the reader something that could easily have been shared and wouldn't have given the game away...hmmm...

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