Keeping Secrets: Two Schools Of Thought

Recently I stumbled upon some writing advice that said a novelist should give his protagonist secrets. That struck a bell, especially when I read an excellent debut novel by Shannon Dittemore entitled Angel Eyes. In this story the protagonist returns home to a small town in obvious emotional distress. But the reader doesn’t know why. The townspeople know why. And of course the protagonist knows why, but we readers are left in the dark … for a little while. Slowly, piece by piece, the story about what caused the character’s trauma unfolds.

I found the story compelling, in large part because I didn’t know what was behind the girl’s broken spirit. I was reading to discover the secret.

In Beckon by Tom Pawlik, a whole town has a secret. In Meg Mosley’s When The Sparrow’s Fall, the protagonist has a secret she guards carefully from the other main character, and consequently from the readers.

Since I couldn’t remember the original source for the advice about secrets, I did a little research and quickly found another writer speaking to the issue:

There is incredible power in keeping protagonist’s secrets. Just like in real life, you never know everything about someone else, and you never want to let someone know everything about you. This is the point of secrets–not everyone knows them. The power of secrets is your readers realize they don’t know everything about the protagonist, and they await with excitement further revelations. (by L.D. Alford at Zen of Scenes)

Ah, it seems this advice to give characters secrets is catching on, or perhaps it’s been a part of writing instruction all along, and I just missed it.

Except, I also came across words of writing wisdom from the renowned Kurt Vonnegut. His final point of eight is this:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. (from “Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story” by Maria Popova)

Come to think of it, a friend had an agent request manuscript changes that removed an unfolding secret in favor of a straightforward, up front presentation of what and why, Vonnegut style.

So which is “right”? I suspect the one that works for your story is the one that’s right. Some stories aren’t built on the suspense of a withheld secret. Whatever other tension and conflict they utilize still keep readers engaged.

But that doesn’t mean character secrets can’t work. The novels I mentioned above are proof that they do. The key, I believe, is that a writer must not confuse the reader in the process of creating a secret. In fact, just the opposite is true. The writer planting a character secret must hint and suggest.

In the case of the novels I mentioned, readers knew there was a secret, and slowly as one piece of information or foreshadowing revealed a clue, a picture began to emerge. At some point along the journey, then, the author pulled back the curtain to show part or all of the secret, surprising readers or justifying their suspicions.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I realize I’m in the camp that likes character secrets, but obviously not everyone is with me, starting with Kurt Vonnegut. What about you? Which camp are you in and why?

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Filed under Characters, Suspense

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