Keeping Secrets How to Make Your Book Un-Put-Down-able

Keeping Secrets: How to Make Your Book Un-Put-Down-able

Did you know there’s only one (count it: one!) reason readers read? This reason manifests in many different ways. One reader might call it a search for knowledge. Another might call it a desire to be swept away to unfamiliar worlds. Others might say they’re after adrenaline or maybe romance. But what those reasons all boil down to is: curiosity.

Readers read because there’s something in a story that piques their curiosity. There’s something they don’t know about the characters, the setting, or the plot—and it’s driving them absolutely crazy!

In other words, the author has a secret. And if that author is a smart cookie, he’s going to milk that secret for everything it’s worth. The longer and greater the readers’ curiosity, the more un-put-down-able your story will be.

Jane Eyre: Writer's Digest Annotated ClassicsSo how can you make sure you’re planting and delivering the kind of secrets that will keep readers up into the wee hours of the morning? In studying masterful classics, such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (whose process and techniques I analyze in depth in my book Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic), I discovered three important steps to make sure your story’s secrets drive your readers wild.

Step #1: Plan the Secret

To begin with, you gotta have a secret. The secret doesn’t necessarily need to be something major (like a crazy wife in the attic). The only real requirement is that it raises a question your readers will want to answer. Why doesn’t Angie want to tell Bill she went to the grocery store? What’s Little Sammy so insistent on hiding under his bed? How come Liz always wears red stilettos?

But remember: the more emphasis you place on the secret’s importance, the better the payoff will have to be (more on that in Step #3).

Often, secrets arise straight from your character’s backstory. Perhaps something horrible happened to him—or he committed a horrible crime against someone else. Now it’s haunting him. But, more important, it’s motivating him. Secrets can’t be random. They must always inform your plot. If your hero’s mom dying when he was twelve has zero bearing on your story of nuclear war, then don’t shroud it in tantalizing darkness for two-thirds of the story.

Step #2: Plant the Secret

Successfully planting a secret is all about foreshadowing. If readers are going to be curious about something dark in your character’s past, they first have know about that something dark. You can accomplish this in several ways.

Tone

Never underestimate the power of narrative tone in letting readers know something’s under your story’s surface. Jane Eyre is the Gothic novel in large part due to Brontë’s pitch perfect use of tone. When Jane takes that nannying job at Rochester’s gloomy mansion, she has no reason to view Thornfield Manor as anything except a sanctuary. And yet through such subtle tricks as shadowy lighting, unspoken menace, and carefully chosen verbiage, Brontë lets her readers know right from the beginning that something dark is afoot.

Symbolism

Symbolism works hand in hand with tone to create a subtle—sometimes even unconscious—sense of weight within a novel. It creates what Ernest Hemingway called “the 9/10ths of the iceberg under the water.” In Jane Eyre, Brontë uses cages and prisons to symbolize Thornfield, which provides a remarkable contrast with her protagonist’s initial view of her new job as a harbinger of freedom and hope. The juxtaposition jars readers and prepares them for more specific revelations yet to come.

Context

Show, don’t tell—that favorite aphorism of writers everywhere—comes into play here as well. When Angie keeps hiding her grocery receipts from Bill, and Little Sammy keeps shoving something under the bed, and Liz keeps doing laundry in those stilettos, you know readers are going to start wondering what’s going on. You don’t have to tell them something is amiss when they can read the signs for themselves. When everybody at Thornfield keeps dodging Jane’s curiosity about the strange happenings in the attic, well, who wouldn’t want to find out what’s going on?

Direct Statements

As powerful as subtlety can be when properly wielded, don’t feel you can’t come right out and tell readers there’s a secret. Allowing one character to acknowledge to another that something’s up with Little Sammy confirms readers’ suspicions and guides their curiosity into a more specific question. When Jane outright asks about the mysterious goings-on upstairs—and nobody will tell her anything—readers’ curiosity is jacked that much higher.

Step #3: Confront the Secret

As your story progresses, you will need to sow new clues throughout. Little by little, you have to feed readers new information, both to remind them of their curiosity and to whet their appetites for the big reveal.

This is where those direct statements become important. At some point in every story, your characters need to get down and dirty about that secret. They need to confront each other, demand answers, and gain perhaps a speck or two or truth—but, just as importantly, more than few misdirections as well.

The more effective your secret, the longer it will take your readers to solve the mystery. But readers are smart. Give them enough time to consider the clues, and they’ll probably out-Sherlock your protagonist. You can’t pretend away the obvious clues. You have to face them head on and—without lying to your readers—get them to believe those clues mean nothing.

One of the most masterful scenes in Jane Eyre has Jane finally venting her frustrated curiosity and demanding answers about the crazy person living in the attic. Jane voices all the suspicions readers are pondering—only to have those suspicions neatly dealt with. Just like that, curiosity is raised to a higher pitch, even as it is deflected away from the truth.

Step #4: Pay Off the Secret

What’s the good of a secret if you can’t eventually tell it, right? When and how you pay off your story’s secret will depend on the secret’s importance to the plot.

When your secret is a story-changer (as is the revelation of Rochester’s mad wife on the day of his marriage to Jane), the timing has to be perfectly planned. What is the latest possible moment in your story in which you can reveal the answer? What moment will be most devastating to the characters and create the most interesting repercussions?

Most important of all, the secret’s pay-off must be brilliant. When you’ve tantalized readers with the possibilities for 300 pages, only to reveal Angie was just trying to keep Bill from seeing his birthday present, readers are sure to feel gypped.

Great plot twists are based on overwhelming, shocking, scandalizing, story-shaking secrets. If you can build a powerful secret into the heart of your story, and then pay it off in a way that stuns readers, you can be sure they’ll be on Amazon buying your next book all of thirty seconds after finishing this one.
Keeping Secrets How to Make Your Book Un-Put-Down-able

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

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