Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Writers Keeping Secrets

This week on the Buzz blog we've been celebrating Marley’s latest release, Ghost Huntress: The Reason. Last week we all dished about lies in our pasts, and this week we're spilling secrets.

While I can't exactly spill any of my secrets (because then they wouldn't be secrets, would they?) I want to talk about keeping secrets in writing. I don't remember where I heard it, but there's an adage in writing that goes something like this:
Secrets from the character are good, secrets from the reader aren't.
Basically it means that if the character doesn't know something that the reader knows, that's fine. It's even okay if the character doesn't know something and neither does the reader. But if your character knows something (like that she's secretly a mermaid or a princess or in love with a particular boy) then the reader should know, too.

Let's take a classic example: Romeo and Juliet. Think about the end, when Juliet has taken the special "poison" that will make her appear to be dead, so she can go be with Romeo forever. Enter Romeo, who has no idea that she isn't really dead. The reader knows. We're practically screaming at Romeo to just wait a few minutes before stabbing himself in the gut. As sad as it is, we love that, because we know something Romeo doesn't.

Imagine if it were reversed. Imagine if we thought Juliet were really dead. Imagine Romeo knew the truth, so he just walks into her crypt, whistling a happy tune, and has a seat next to her seemingly-dead body. We'd hate him in the moment because it looks like he doesn't care at all for this girl who risked everything to be with him. When she woke up a moments later and we discovered the truth, we would be so annoyed that we (or at least I) would throw the book across the room.

It's all about balance, about making sure the reader never knows less than the characters. As readers, we either want to share the big reveal with the character or we want to know what's coming and anticipate their reaction when they find out, too.

Okay, enough of my little rant about secrets in books and onto the fun stuff. The giveaway! Marley is giving away signed copies of her new book all week here at the Buzz blog. To enter today's contest, leave a comment the following:
Share an example (good or bad) of a book in which the writer keeps a secret from the character.
Besides Romeo and Juliet, I would have to say Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. I won't share what, because it would be spoilers, but she's brilliant at hinting to the reader about a really huge secret that Katniss really has no clue about. Brilliant, really.

Your turn to share. Check back every day to comment on the other Buzz girl posts for more chances to win and then tune in this weekend to find out who won.


FORGIVE MY FINS (coming June 1, 2010)


Nikki said...

In the Outlander series Diana Gabeldon does a great job at keeping secrets. It is kind of hard to explain the circumstances because the books are long and complicated. For one thing it takes us a long while, like five or six books, to realize that Claire's 20th century husband, Frank, really believes she went back in time to the 18th century and got married to another man named Jaimie and got pregnant; this bit of knowledge and what he does with it makes him a little less of an ass.
One secret I'm waiting for DG to reveal is if the ghost that Frank saw staring at Claire in the first book was Jaimie or not.

Liviania said...

I think Megan Whalen Turner, in The Thief, does a fabulous job of keeping a secret from the reader and not making it awful. When it's revealed, everything that came before in the book changes, but still works. It's incredible.

Cara King said...

Ooh, Liviania, good example! I totally agree about The Thief. Secrets are kept from the reader, but it's not bad, it's good -- wonderful, in fact! (A great example of why no writing rule is unbreakable.)

And Turner does the same in her next three Attolia books -- wonderful surprises in all of them. (And I strongly recommend avoiding spoilers to keep her surprises surprising!)

As to secrets kept from the character...I think that's less common in YA now that so many books are either first person or a very close 3rd person...but I suppose a clever author can do it by dropping in clues that the character ignores (or doesn't understand) but the reader can figure out. (For example, in Diana Wynne Jones's fabulous "Howl's Moving Castle," one character is from our world...and so the random bits of info that mean nothing to the heroine clue us in...)


AllisonPaige25 said...

James Patterson's The Honeymoon is a good example of a secret being kept from the characters..
The main character is a black widow and the men that she catches in her web (poor guys) have no idea what hit them until after it's too late..
The same goes for another potential victim.. until he gets wise and then.. well I guess you'll have to read it to find out!!!

bookaholic said...

The best example of a story where the writer his secrets from his characters according to me is Twelfth Night by Shakespeare. He never for once let the other characters know that Cesario was actually Viola who was disguised as a pageboy for Orsino. And in the process Olivia falls in love with Cesario,Viola falls for Orsino...and its a total comedy of errors!! Brilliant masterpiece from the best story-teller of all ages!

donnas said...

The Mortal Instruments series has a couple of secrets that are kept from both the characters and the readers. Very good series that keeps you wondering too.

nymfaux said...

I just finished reading "Fallen," and was really disappointed that the author kept HUGE chunks of both the character's mythology and religious mythology--I didn't mind going along for the ride, but by the end of the book, we still didn't know a majority of everything that led up to the events in the beginning of the book. I felt empty at the end, dreading a second book now, instead of anticipating one--A teaser is fine, but give me SOMETHING... it's so frustrating!

Speaking of teasers...TLC keeps teasing us with Nicole's godly lineage. It's an example of a good secret, because people want to know, which means she did a good job creating interesting characters...And, at least so far, it hasn't been something integral to advancing the plot.

nymfaux said...

And as long as we're talking about the subject, it really bothered me that the Harry Potter movies never revealed the origin of the Marauder's Map--It's really important to how Harry develops and views his connections with some of the other characters in the book, also tying some of the other characters together in an important way. And though I totally recommend reading the books, the movies should be able to stand independently, and in this case, I really feel that the moviegoers are really missing something important.

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree!! In the 6th movie, they in;y mentiones 2 of the 6 Horcruxes mentioned in the book. Movie 7 will be REALLY confusing to non-readers.

nymfaux said...

thanks!--And you're right about the horcruxes--that's the part that redeems Regilus Black, if people haven't read the books, they have no clue!

Llehn said...

I know exactly what you mean, Nymfaux about Fallen. I seem to be reading more and more books these days that are clearly set ups for a series more for marketing reasons than anything else and it frustrates me. Every book needs closure with some kind of independent story arc, not just dumping a whole bunch of information about character and premise and going nowhere, paving the way for a sequel. I, for one, am boycotting the subsequent books.

I think the most reason book where the author kept a secret from the reader and when it is revealed, it changes the dynamics of the book is Liar by Justine Labalestier.

petra said...

i loved the outlander series

nymfaux said...

Llehn totally agree with you! I'm very excited when a good author gets a series, because otherwise I run out of books very quickly! :)

But books need to be able to stand on their own, too--especially the first one!

Anonymous said...

I really like the point you make here. As a reader I do like to know more than the characters (or at least think I do) but at the same time it is sometimes nice to be surprised ( as long as it is logical). I think I would be annoyed if the character knew they were a mermaid and they didn't tell us, but I would be pleasantly amused if another character knew that they were a mermaid and hadn't told the readers.
Thanks for an interesting post.
I have to say I like Faye Kellermen as a writer because she keeps the reader in the dark, but usually because the characters are in the dark at the same time. The reader can usually figure out how something has happened about a line before the characters come to the same conclusion so it is an interesting battle to see if you can beat the character to the punch.

Llehn said...

I'm glad to hear that Nymfaux! Like I thought Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater was a pretty good stand alone by itself and it just so happened that it got turned into a series. Books should be like that on the principal of it and not sacrifice their integrity for commercial reasons!!

Hee hee hee ... sorry for hijacking this thread for our soapbox rant :D

Precious said...

City of Glass is a novel with lots of secrets. Cassandra Clare kept secrets from her characters and filled the story with twists and turns with a revelation that I never expected.

YA Vampire Books said...

Catching Fire is a great example! Other books I think of are City of Bones, My Soul To Take & Glass Houses

Anonymous said...

I know this is the opposite, but I find that in 'Evernight' the author does preceisely the thing you say not to: for the entire book the main character knows she's a vampire, but we only find out half way! All sorts of strange things were happening during the first half of the book and we had no idea what was going on, but obviously the main character knew. I found that very poor writing.

Bee said...

I have to agree about Catching Fire. That book just kept my pulse racing throughout..and the big reveal literally killed me! Can't wait for Mockingjay..

Also, I think all of Sidney Sheldon's book have some earth-shattering secrets. Windmills Of The Gods caught me clueless with the big reveal about who Angel really was!