Just in Time

The determination of when to reveal the secret of a character is a vital consideration in the mystery genre, but the placement affects all sorts of stories. The author who rushes to divulge all of the interesting info on a character early on may find they have nowhere to go later. That’s because character building functions in the same way as plot building.

As a novel is opened, a reader starts with a tabula rasa. The promotion copy on the back cover may have provided an inkling of what the major characters are up to, but the experience is quite different once they are plunged up to the waist in whatever drama wants to draw them in. Most books begin with several characters to keep track of, and they are engaged in activities that are must be followed, not to mention the narrator’s comments and thoughts about the proceedings. Do I, as the reader, need to know dark secrets at this juncture? Of course not. I’m just trying to figure out the lie of the land.

Nor do most authors have trouble keeping the reader entertained in the early going. The reader is getting to know the characters, judging which ones to like more. Whatever initial plot gambit got the ball rolling takes a number of pages to play out. As an author, you can count on running out a string of 40 pages at least before you need to take further steps in the drama. In many cases the plot’s construction pushes the initial premise past the midway point.

Now is the time to consider opening a trapdoor. The reader learns, for example,  that the protagonist, who has alluded darkly to a past spouse, was actually run out of town on suspicion they murdered the spouse. Oh, I didn’t know that. That changes what others were doing concerning the character, as well as the reader’s view of the character. We knew something was going to come of the grumbling (the author’s setup prior to revealing the secret), but not exactly what.

Several more secrets can be dropped in during the middle stretch of the novel, helping to avoid any mid-book slump. As long as each one is more serious, affecting to an increasing degree the landscape the reader thought they already knew, the secrets further the obstacles the lead characters face. Their past—or, their ultimate aim—colors how the plot will progress.

You can hold a few final twists for the very end, but usually the climax sequence, of 50-100 pages, is filled with enough active steps forward that secrets don’t need to be employed. You set up the markers, and then you throw them all together in the final chase. Then pull the rug out a last time.

Exercise: Secrets will be most effective if you know what they are before you compose page 1, or well before you reach a plot point. Draw up a list, attach them to a main character, and rank the darkest, most weighty secret at the bottom of the list. Now you can devise the plot so that each secret injects the story with new energy.

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.