Holding Back Surprises

I can't think of a story with no mystery at all, whether it's a revelation of secret paternity, a mentor back from the dead, or a social worker with government connections. So as a writer, you have to figure out how to hide your secret long enough to surprise the reader.

Unfortunately, readers will be trying to figure out your secrets the whole time and, as we've said before, they are super geniuses. Their reaction is directly related to the amount of time between when they figure out your mystery and when you reveal it.


Obviously, you want them to figure it out as late as possible (zero words; though a smug nod is okay too; it means the reader thinks they figured it out before "most people," which makes them feel good about themselves).

You should know this is very hard to do without trial and error, which is why God created beta readers. A good beta reader can help you figure out which secrets are working, which are not yet, and which are so annoying because oh my gosh it's so obvious HE'S YOUR LONG LOST TWIN BROTHER, YOU TWIT!!

Sorry.

When you find readers are picking up on a secret much too early, there are at least two things you can do.

1. Be more subtle. Figure out what the reader picked up on and remove it. (Be careful, though. If you withhold too much information, the reader will feel tricked. If that chart went into the negatives, this is what would go there.)

2. Add misdirection. Make the reader think they know what's going on, even though it isn't. Scooby-Doo was a master of this . . . for 7-year-olds. If your audience is any older, you'll have to get more creative. The trick, I think, is to believe your own lie as you write it.

I think I'll talk more about misdirection later. For now, do you guys have any other ideas for successfully hiding a secret from the reader?

12 comments:

Andrea Mack said...

One of my challenges as a writer is not to include too many of these secrets (it can get confusing). These are great strategies. Sometimes I have a secondary character involved in figuring out the secret, so I can show their reaction to what the main character deduces.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Misdirection has a lot of flavors, but I like putting the knowledge out there only to have the MC interpret it for the reader ... wrongly. If your reader is bonding well with your MC, this can work well (as long as your MC isn't being stupid - which is a very relative term!).

Great post!

Traci said...

Great advice! I like the chart, lol...

Daniel Smith said...

Great post. I blogged about this over a year ago myself. Susan's comment should be added as #3 and here is #4:

Change up the logical order of the clues. If A leads to B leads to C then the writer should provide C first, then B, and finally A.

In Harry Potter book 1, JKR gives us the information about Nicolas Flamel at the beginning of the story on Harry's inaugural train ride to Hogwarts. His identity was crucial in identifying the object hidden away from Voldy and also explained the motivation for stealing it.

Nancy Thompson said...

Your post provided a major AHA! moment for me. Thanks Adam! Happy New Year!

Donna Hole said...

Good tips Adam. Happy New Year.

.......dhole

vic caswell (aspiring-x) said...

scoobydoo misdirection works on some of us older folks too...
is that bad?

great post, really! lots to think about, and actually will change a bunch of one of my wips which was not working! thanks!

Angela Brown said...

Hmmm...red herring. Wherefore art thou?

Matthew MacNish said...

Or you could just go all George R.R. Martin on your MS, not give f$%^ all about any characters, and simply kill everyone.

Michael Offutt, Visitor from the Future said...

LOL at Matthew's comment. I hate it when I figure things out early in a book. Great post :)

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

for me, it's helpful when i don't even realize there's a msytery until suddenly it shows up in the first draft. When it's a suprise to me, usually it's a suprise to the readers, too. But of course, we can't always plan for awesome moments of epiphany. They sure are nice when they happen, though.

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

I have lots of secrets in my current WiP, which frightens me a bit because I'm not sure I'm pacing the disclosures correctly. BUT, I agree with Sarah ... I usually don't know the answers to my mysteries until they turn up in the first draft. :) And those epiphany moments are when I love being a pantser! :)