I’m not talking about your personal secrets, the ones you agonize whether or not to reveal by being naked on the page. I’m talking about the more technical issue of how/when you disclose secrets as part of your plot.
Secrets are a lovely playground for writers—so many ways to misinterpret, add mystery, and/or keep the story moving forward. But not without its pitfalls for the writer.
Too many secrets
You’ve come up with a great mystery novel idea. The FBI, CIA, NSA and Department of Justice are all trying to kill a woman with an earth-shattering secret. Throw in a rogue NSA agent and your detective and you have a dog’s breakfast of underground motives and activities. It’ll be great fun throwing in red herrings and false trails. You barrel towards your surprise ending.
Okay, so this is where you want to give a thought to your reader. You know where you’re taking this. But the reader doesn’t. All he experiences is five or six shadowy characters doing enigmatic things, all of which seem unrelated. If you’re lucky, he’ll stick with you. But more likely, he’ll be confused, can’t keep the story lines straight, and will give up on the novel as a boring tangle.
- Cut down the number of suspects. I know—strikes a blow to your heart. But think about it. Why are many villains better than one really well-written one whom the detective doesn’t recognize until almost too late?
- Make each suspect/secret really intriguing. The previous suggestion may be a bridge too far. An alternative is to spend more time with each suspect so the reader has an interest in finding out what happens to the particular characters.
The opposite end of the spectrum is making the villain too obvious. The character that always seems to be on the scene. The nosy parker. The excessively helpful bystander. Since your reader is often smarter than you, revealing any one of them as the murderer/villain will seem flat and been-there-done-that. And your novel will end deflated rather than with a big pop.
- Give credible reasons for being there. Presumably, your bad guy has to be present or at least connected to the events experienced by your detective. Spend some energy coming up with a credible backstory for your villain. The attending doctor, the protagonist’s kid’s teacher, the physio working out the detective’s muscle cramps.
- Let the reveal be satisfying. Okay, this isn’t really a fix. It’s more how the end product will feel to your reader. You want a I-didn’t-see-that-coming-but-it-makes-sense, rather than an Oh-okay-that’s-what-happened. If you get the first reaction, you’re likely to have built a story which kept your reader involved while planting clues he won’t recognize until after he knows the solution.
A Goldilocks moment
Yes, it is a matter of the porridge being neither too hot nor cold. Give a thought to how the story will strike the reader. Keep giving the reader a reason to turn the page. The promise of a great ending doesn’t cut it. Instead, litter the path with crumbs which allow the reader the pleasure of trying to figure things out as the novel progresses.
He’ll love you for it.