I originally planned to blog about an unusual plotting technique I’ve been tinkering with, but I’m not going to. Right now you’re either relieved to not have to slog through a tech manual of plot, or you still have something to look forward to at a later date.
As I was putting my original post together, and as it was becoming more wonky and arcane, I developed some misgivings. It made me wonder where authors draw the line on what we reveal to our readers, what we choose to keep back, and why.
So I’m writing about that instead.
It’s not that I thought a post on plot theory would be too boring. Especially not for a readership focused on books. And it’s not that I’m still too early into the manuscript to talk about it. An introduction and interim report would make an excellent blog post.
Mainly, I’m just being selfish.
I’ve always shared whatever writing tips and techniques I’ve picked up, but in this book I’ll be venturing into an area I haven’t seen many people go before. If it works well, I want others to have trouble trying to reverse engineer it.
In the world of intellectual property, this is called a trade secret. My first. It may turn out to be a good one, or not, but whatever value it has would go away if it were shared too widely.
Magicians don’t share their best tricks and are celebrated for all that happens up their sleeves or behind the cover of a curtain, so why should authors be expected to so readily reveal our magic?
Amie Borst, author of Cinderskella, Little Dead Riding Hood, and Snow Fright, told me:
I leave Easter Eggs in my stories. I can always guess the kids who’ve read my books dozens of times because they find those eggs. There’s one egg I planted in Little Dead Riding Hood that no one has picked up on but I have revealed it during school visits. The look on their faces says it all, “OMG! Of Course! How did I miss something so obvious?”
Some authors pepper their works with in-jokes and references that only a handful of people on the planet are able to see. But Easter Eggs are intended by an author to be findable by any reader attentive enough to notice a detail and clever enough to make a connection.
As a warning, a reader may stumble over quite a few egg-shaped “fan theory” rocks before finding a genuine author-planted Easter Egg, but the hunt is what counts and it would be spoiled by an author who gives out detailed maps, confirms too quickly when an Easter Egg has been found, or installs too many big neon signs pointing out the eggs.
If you’re interested in an egg-hunt in my work, I’ll sprinkle a few breadcrumbs for you. There is a transgender character in The Challengers and The Amorphous Assassin, the first two books of my Galaxy Games series. Finding this Easter Egg requires reading both books closely. The answer will be confirmed in the upcoming third book, The Mad Messenger.
Rosanne Parry, author of Written in Stone, Second Fiddle, Written in Stone, and The Turn of the Tide told me:
Often there is a darker element to the history of my works of historical fiction than I present to my readers. I need the historical context to inform my writing but I’d rather my readers discover the more violent parts of world history when they are older than 9 or 10.
For example, in my book Second Fiddle, I know that the Soviet Army treated soldiers from the Soviet republics, like my character Arvo, with particular brutality. Soldiers from the republics were separated from their countrymen while in the army and often gang raped by Russian Soviets and then threatened with the exposure of their homosexuality-a serious and sometimes capital crime in the Soviet Union.
My readers don’t need to know that piece of Russian history yet but it really helped me understand the depth of my character Arvo’s fears when he and the girls are being followed by the KGB.
As authors, we need more detailed knowledge of our characters then will ever make it into a book, and more detailed knowledge of the setting, whether we invent a fantasy world or uncover historical research like Rosanne has.
Rosanne’s example would be inappropriate to include explicitly in her book and for her readers. Her solution is to allow these disturbing details to affect the tone of her book and the reactions of her characters. The hidden details aren’t ever visible to the reader, but Rosanne keeps them close enough to the surface to make them real.
Author Laurie J. Edwards told me:
On Facebook, my author pages, and my blog (Rachel J. Good & Laurie J. Edwards), I often post pictures and share my research for forthcoming books, but several times I’ve discovered really unusual facts or a fascinating group or location. I decided not to post about those. Instead, I want my readers to enjoy those as surprises when they read the books.
What I’m calling spoilers come in two categories. First are the little surprises, like Laurie describes. In my experience, many of these start as surprises for the authors as well.
In the outline of my current work-in-progress, the main character was supposed to go to the marketplace for a spool of thread and come away with a goat. That scene, as I’m actually writing it in another window, is different than I could have imagined. Meant as a simple mercantile transaction to drive the plot forward, it has plumbed the depths of character and revealed important truths about how the story universe works. And I haven’t even gotten to the goat yet!
In researching this same scene, I came across a reference in Greek mythology to the Bee Maidens of Mount Parnassos. There were three of them, half-human and half-bee in appearance, and it was said that they could predict the future when they were sufficiently full of honey and in a good enough mood. If these characters ever pop up in my book, I’ll be as surprised as anyone, and I’ll want the reader to experience the same level of surprise.
And by telling you about the Bee Maidens just now, I’ve just spoiled the surprise. Oops!
The more commonly referenced kind of spoiler is a more intense subset, where the spoiler contains information that changes the reader’s perspective on what has come before. Revealing the spoiler prematurely doesn’t just dampen the effect of the spoiler itself, but lessens the experience of the entire work.
This is why spoiler warnings are so important.
Four Secrets Recap
So I’ve counted four things that many of your favorite authors might be keeping from you, usually for good reason:
- Trade Secrets – Personal and private techniques and strategies that authors use to make their works unique, distinctive, and special.
- Easter Eggs – Details planted by the author as a reward to be uncovered by only the most attentive readers.
- Backstory – Details that may never be seen but can still affect the tone of a story, add depth to the characters, and make the story world feel more complex and realistic.
- Spoilers – Details intended to be secret until a big reveal that is designed to be an integral part of the story experience.
Do you have good examples of these secrets that you’d like to share?
Are there more secrets that you think I’ve missed?
Leave comments for further discussion, and let me know if you want me to blog about any of them in more detail in a future post!