Secrets Make the Story World Go Round
Secrets are what make life interesting in the world of fiction. They cause a lot of drama in real life too but they’re the lifeblood of many fiction genres. One of my favorite genre writers is Alistair MacLean and he’s one of the best at using secrets to propel his story forward. Just recently I was consulting on a screenplay that had a lot of problems. I kept thinking of how MacLean would have dealt with it.
In the story I read the writer revealed who the bad guys were, what their plan was, and who the heroes were in the first 30 pages. So he’d revealed every secret there was before the first act break. What else was there?
MacLean would have approached it very differently. To be sure the man had his own faults as a writer. I picked up one of his books at the library and promptly put it back because the first sentence was something about how the Colt revolver hadn’t changed since the days of Wyatt Earp. Anyone with even basic knowledge of gun safety knows quite a bit had changed since the 1870s. But MacLean was like a tabloid reporter who never let the facts get in the way of a good story. So even if his novels could be a little thin as far as details went he still provided a really exciting ride.
And the key to his success as a writer is in how he used secrets. He loaded his stories with them. Every character had at least if not more. And he took his own sweet time revealing them to the reader. In MacLean’s books every chapter would begin with a mystery. Something unusual has happened. The characters investigate what happened. As the chapter ends the hero declares he knows the explanation.
But he doesn’t say what it is! At that moment MacLean throws in another complication. Another murder. Another car crash. And now everyone has a new problem to solve. The secret for that chapter is revealed further along but by that time the reader has several more mysteries and secrets to ponder.
The key to this style of writing is recognizing that the reader is totally in the dark and that it’s in the writer’s best interest to keep him there for as long as possible. Think of Game of Thrones and all the myriad secrets that are slowly revealed throughout the course of the novel and the series. If the audience knew right from the start who killed Ned Stark’s friend, would they stick around?