K is for Keeping Secrets

K is for Keeping Secrets 2015 A to Z Challenge -- April J. MooreDoesn’t it look like my sister knows something you don’t? A little unnerving, isn’t it?

It can be easy for writers to keep secrets from their readers, but it generally doesn’t go over well. You want to surprise the reader, or build suspense, so you withhold a few things, but you can end up pissing off the reader. It can also feel insulting, as if the author thinks you’re too dumb to catch on. It’s not fun to be reading a book, when suddenly the author drops a bombshell that he clearly knew about from the beginning, but didn’t let you in on it.

Seriously, how does it not come up sooner that her father is half-alien?!

This is particularly annoying when it’s the protagonist whose coming clean in the last chapter. There is a fine line between deceiving the reader and devising a suspenseful plot. 

There’s also a difference between building suspense and building tension. It might be more beneficial to be honest with your readers by letting them in on it and then build tension by keeping the secret(s) from other characters, for example. You want to shock and surprise the reader, but your main character can’t be deceiving. You got yourself an unreliable narrator—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it has to be done right. 

The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie, was one of the first books featuring an unreliable narrator. We read this one in my book club last year, and we seemed to be mixed on our feeling toward it. I hate to give anything away, but basically, it isn’t until the end, that we discover our first person narrator isn’t who he says he is. Yet, somehow, Christie pulled it off. The narrator didn’t actually lie about anything; he was truthful when asked questions—it was that the other characters didn’t ask the right questions. That, and Christie created a character with a trustworthy background. 

Other authors who did this well: Palahniuk (Fight Club); Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho); and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights).

Be careful about keeping secrets from the reader because you can end up deceiving them. If you’re concerned about doing that, have someone who knows nothing about your story or book, read it. They’ll likely pick up on that stuff right away. 

How do you feel about unreliable narrators?  

A to Z Challenge 2015

6 thoughts on “K is for Keeping Secrets

  1. Dean K Miller

    Keeping the right secrets, exposing hints at the right time is the master craft skill of writing in the mystery/thriller genre. When it’s spot on, there’s nothing but “WOW” impact. Poorly done, meh, give me the Oreos and milk instead.

    BTW: That photo has Stephen King character written all over it!

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  2. Amy Rivers

    I think it all depends on whether the author is able to keep secrets in a way that creates suspense instead of making you (the reader) feel like an idiot. I hate feeling like an idiot when I’m reading but I love trying to figure things out as I go along so having information withheld or arranged in such a way that it is misleading can be fun. Sometimes.

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  3. Patricia Stoltey

    Unreliable narrators make for great suspense and thrillers, and can be useful for women’s fiction. They’re not appreciated in traditional mysteries as a rule, which is one of the things that makes Roger Ackroyd so unusual. The traditional mystery insists the reader know everything the protagonist knows at the instant he knows it, and for the narrator to be someone other than the protagonist is unexpected. But then, Agatha Christie was a master of the genre, so who can complain? Not me.

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