Keeping Secrets from Your Readers

by limebirdkate

Without naming names, there is a very popular mainstream fiction author who keeps secrets from her readers, and her fans call it “plot twists.” I call it deception.

How is it possible to be in the head of the character who knows the secret, and yet not divulge that knowledge to the reader?

Technically, it’s not possible. But this author, and others who play this similar game, devises a strategy that affords her the freedom to deceive her readers. Usually with multiple POVs. You, as the reader, are lured in by the POV characters. All are in conflict with one another. You know all the information that they hand over to you via flashbacks, dialogue, action, narrative. You are their confidante. Their scenes interrupt and overlap each other, which makes it easy for the author to break into their thoughts at just the right (slick) moment.  Then, BAM! You are sideswiped by the one secret that shatters everything you used to believe. And that secret had been held by the POV character(s) until the last possible moment.

Why would an author do this? Because, simply, without that secret—There. Is. No. Story. The way the plot is structured, everything hangs on this secret. So, once the cat is out of the bag, the story is kaput. There is nothing more to tell.

A major problem that comes from withholding information is that you aren’t allowing for an honest connection between reader and POV character(s). I think the conflict of how people deal with the aftermath of the secret (or piece of info) is much more interesting than the secret itself. That’s when you get into the nitty-gritty of your characters’ motivations, strengths, and flaws. You get to see how they can or can’t turn things around and what it all means for everyone involved.

Another major problem is that the author has shortchanged the reader by settling for an idea instead of fostering emotion. Everything is suddenly about the “plot twist” and we’re so caught up in the whirlwind of shock that we don’t really get a chance to understand what it all means.

Keeping secrets from your reader only works logically if your POV character(s) does not have the information. So, if you’re aiming for a plot twist make sure to ask yourself if the POV character has any tidbits he should share with the audience. Otherwise, when the secret comes out it’s fairly obvious that the past 300 pages have all been a set-up. Basically a long, long
journey to get to the punchline. Is that the best way to tell your story?

Or is a better way to tell what your characters will do with that information?

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44 Responses to “Keeping Secrets from Your Readers”

  1. Hmm…interesting take on things. You’ve just made me want to go back and read my ms *again* to make sure I haven’t done that! I move between three POV throughout the story, and do have some surprises . . .

    • Hi Kathils,

      Surprises I like, and there is a fine line between a surprise and deception. IMO, as long as your POV character doesn’t know the surprise, then you’re not cheating the reader. Sometimes it’s easier if your POV character is unreliable or misguided in some way.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Ohh, great post Kate, I hadn’t really thought of it like this. I’m now trying to figure out who you are talking about! *strokes imaginary beard*.

    I do completely see what you mean. I think that you do feel a bit short changed as a reader if this happens, as you’re kind of left feeling a bit, well, cheated! This has really got me thinking that I need to make sure that I haven’t done this in my NaNo WIP!

    • Hey B,

      Haha–I don’t know if I dare add a clue as to the author I’m talking about! What if she’s one of our followers!?! 😉

      Anyway, yes, feeling cheated is a great way to describe reader reaction. I think, as readers, we want to totally connect with the characters as well as the author. If the author doesn’t return the favor then that is disappointing.

  3. I was always told by my creative writing professors in college to never withhold any important information from your readers, but to withhold it from your characters instead. Your readers should know everything that is going on in the plot and within the story itself, and all of the crucial and important secrets and details and twists; your characters are the ones that should not.

    It makes a story so much more delicious and interesting to read when your readers know all of the important secrets, and what is about to happen next, but your characters don’t!

    • Hi Scriptor,

      Yes, definitely! Keeping your characters in the dark is a great way of tightening the tension and building suspense. This way the reader feels like she is a co-creator of the story.

      Great comment!

  4. In Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In the Castle, the plot is withheld from the reader because the narrator turns out to be unreliable. Whether from some sort of mental illness or whether it’s deliberate is left for the reader to decide, but it doesn’t detract from the book.
    That said, it’s a technique best used sparingly and with skill. Using it just to trick your readers because you can’t think of anything else to do is as bad as gratuitously killing off characters because you don’t know what else to do. (If we are thinking og the same author, and I think we are).

    • Hi Exiled,

      Very good point. If your POV character is handicapped in some way that takes a lot of pressure off of the author in terms of giving (or not) away too much information. In an instance like this, it would be akin to the POV character not knowing the info, or misunderstanding the info. I think that is acceptable.

      My only caveat to this would be that the POV character stands to lose something when the truth does come out–even if he does have some of the info or misunderstands the info. Otherwise the secret falls flat and it loses its value.

      Yup, tricking your readers just to create a high dramatic moment probably won’t win you any points. We very well could be thinking of the same author…!

      Awesome comment, thanks!

  5. Og = of. Sorry, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer took over my keyboard for a second.

  6. Can I name names? Does her surname begin with an R? :p

  7. I’m not sure I’ve come across any novels like this, but it could very well be why I tend to avoid short stories. Too often, they’re little more than an excuse to lead the reader to a surprise ending.

    • Hi Catana,

      Yes, I agree that with short stories there is a lot of misleading going on with the author. I wonder if it’s because they think their only choice to create suspense in such a short span of pages is by keeping secrets from the reader.

      I don’t read a lot of short stories either, but you’ve triggered my curiosity. I might have to drag out some of those old English Lit books from high school and see!

      Thanks for commenting!

  8. This is something I try to keep in the front of my mind not only when I’m writing the story, but when I’m trying to develop the plot itself. I think the journey to discover things about themselves and their situation is one of the more interesting things that can happen to any character.

    Right now, I’m having fun with my current project because I’m trying to set up a secret enough that people will go back and look and realize that clues to it were there, but that my pov character missed them because it involves a person she has history with and conflicted emotions about. She doesn’t see him clearly, and is prone to misinterpreting him. I’m finding it’s a very fine line to walk. I don’t want it to be so obvious that the character should pick up on it, or that the reader should guess it, but I don’t want it to be the kind of twist that has absolutely no lead in, because as a reader, I hate those.

    • Hey Julie!

      Oh, I love the way you think. What you have described for your story sounds exactly like what I would appreciate in a novel. It is a very fine line, and I think you have the correct idea in using a protag who is going to have misconceptions about people or things over which she’s in conflict. I think that’s like life anyway!

      How many times have we hated our best friend’s boyfriend because of the way he treats your friend, but your friend can’t see the truth because of her feelings? I think it’s the same in books. The reader can pick up on all the nuances, but the protag can’t and, to me, that’s acceptable.

      Wonderful comment!

      • Thanks for the reply and compliment, Kate.

        I can’t take total credit for the idea, as it really was inspired by life. I realized a number of years ago that we (me especially included) view people and events through the lens of our experiences and preconceptions, also through our own emotional baggage. Everything we perceive is filtered and interpreted. For me, one of my great leaps forward as a writer was figuring out (very recently, sadly) that I had to apply that to my characters. I’m finding that doing so in my current project is instantly making them seem more real, more vivid, so it’s a nice pay off. I just regret the years of making up stories and sometimes writing them down it took me to realize I needed to do that. Oh well. Can’t change the past, but I will be applying it to every POV character I write with from here on out. You can even use it, I find, on non-narrative characters when trying to figure out their reactions to a given situation.

  9. oooooo – nothing irks me more! It’s breaking the whole – reader/writer contract! (and there really is one). It’s lazy writing and in our critique group we pounced on each other (nicely of course) for it when we spotted it. There is a difference between suspense and withholding information 😀

    Great post – something writers need to be aware of constantly!

  10. Hey Goofy,

    You’re right. There is a reader/writer contract, and it is in place from the moment the author writes the first word. Totally lazy writing, and it is disappointing to go through a whole book to realize your trust was betrayed by the author.

    And yes, writers need to be completely on top of how they present information so that they don’t cross that line into deception.

    Thanks for commenting!

  11. Can’t you just whisper who it is? I won’t tell, I promise!

  12. There is finesse in foreshadowing, but I agree with you that some whiplash of a plot twist isn’t fair to the reader. I don’t want to be a mouse to the writer’s cat-like amusement. 😉

  13. You have to be fair to the reader, or you run the risk of losing them. I write twists in my short stories, but in my tales, the protagonist cannot know anything more than the reader. When the twist hits, it should surprise everyone. Foreshadowing helps. And if I did it right, the reader can go back through the story and pick up clues that will eventually lead up to the ending. Character building is a must, no matter what the ending.

    • Nicely put, D.J.,

      I love it when authors plant clues along the way. If well done, I, as the reader, am eager to go back and read the story again to see if I can pick up the clues now knowing the truth.

      Thanks for commenting!

  14. Loved this. Could work two ways mostly for the benefit of the story of stories. This is a good thing if the writer can pull it off without giving too much away or keep everything from the reader until the time the information comes to light. Adds a new dimension to the story and can make it very good if worked right.

    • Hi Alpha,

      It’s all about whether the author does a good job in telling the story, isn’t it? We are much more likely to go along for the ride if we don’t feel like we’re being taken advantage of for the sake of a “surprise” ending.

      Thanks for commenting!

  15. Great post! You made the important distinction between what the author knows, what the characters know, and what the characters knowingly withholds from the reader. I’m reading a thriller right now and it’s kinda frustrating to have multiple POV and realize characters are withholding information from me. I’m a bigger fan of ramifications than revelations.

    • Hi Kourtney,

      I agree. I want to be a part of the story, and I don’t want to be treated like I’m an outsider. When the protagonist confides in me it should be on the “up-and-up” so that I have a fair shot at understanding/guessing what might happen next. And if I guess wrong, that’s okay–as long as I wasn’t hoodwinked along the way.

      Thanks for a great comment!

  16. Interesting post! I’ve never really thought of it that way before.

  17. Hi cavy,

    I never considered it, either, until I read a couple of books that were written in such a way that made me feel like I was being tricked for the sake of a “great surprise”. I didn’t feel surprised, I felt cheated. Suddenly I made the distinction between authors holding out on the reader and protagonists not knowing the one piece of information that would change everything.

    Thanks for commenting!

  18. Hard to say. Some stories end on the secret. Some stories start on the secret. I think a good story could be told either way. Though not a novel, The Usual Suspects does the former quite well without sacrificing character development – as does Suicide Kings – both of which are satisfying stories. On the other hand, stories like Treason (Orson Scott Card) and The Corrections (Johnathan Franzen) are good examples of the latter, using the secret as merely a premise or platform for the tale. It’s a matter of the writer’s technique and execution of the story. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  19. The old choice between keeping the reader in the dark and telling the character and keeping the character in the dark and telling the reader is an important one. Really, though, of course the author can tell the character and not us. They need only rely on the simple principle that if they know it, they needn’t say it aloud or think it aloud. Isn’t that why sidekicks were invented? To ask convenient questions?

    • Hi William,

      So sorry for the late reply!

      I appreciate your thoughts, and certainly they are valid. Sidekicks meaning friends? Friends who know the secret and are the ones who divulge it, is that what you mean?

      Sure. I guess that is one way to handle it, although off the top of my head I can’t think of any that pull that off successfully. Which titles might you be thinking of? How is it explained that the protag doesn’t think about it — even for a brief moment — but the friend gives away the secret?

      To me–knee-jerk reaction–I still feel it’s because without the secret there is no story to tell.

      That said, I have not read all books known to mankind. If you have a suggestion of a book where this device works, I would welcome the chance to read it. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment!

      • Season’s greetings!

        That’s not quite what I mean – I’m more referring to when the main character has a plan but needn’t say it aloud, and so the sidekick exists to ask thing like, “Why did you place the charge under that abandoned warehouse?”

        Think of, perhaps, Holmes and Watson – if there was no Watson to say things like, “That was amazing! How did you do that?” then Sherlock would just walk around saying things. Or if Dumbledore just did things and Harry didn’t ask why, or if the Doctor didn’t have a companion to ask what he was doing, or if Zaphod and Ford just did things without Arthur asking what was going on. And a protagonist can take something for granted so as not to mention it – look at Beth’s story the other day, with that whole Carl and Jack plot twist thingy. (Remember it? This one: https://limebirduk.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/short-story-why-not/) There, the character was well aware of something but saw no reason to say it, and so Beth exploited that to make us think. Props to Beth.

        Still, while the secret might make the story what it is, there are plenty of ways to keep it from the reader without messing around with convenient flashbacks and POV switches. In fact, flashbacks are generally another way to divulge a secret – look at The Prince’s Tale, when Harry found out that Snape was good. The really difficult choice is how to let the secret out, not how to keep it in.

        Wow, that was long. I should calm down and drink some tea.

        Might your day be bright and your load be light,
        William.

      • Hi William!

        Ah yes, I think I see what you mean. What I was referring to, though, was that secret-keeping is a plot device used to hold reader attention. This secret goes on from page 1 through to the climax of the book–so, we’re talking a good 275 pages or more.

        Yes, I read the book Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. However (if I’m remembering correctly) when Harry learned the secret, the reader learned it at the same time. I think that is okay, because Harry is the protag and the only character whose head we’re in.

        As far as Holmes & Watson — weren’t those books written from Watson’s point of view? I have not read them personally, only have heard about them. If I remember correctly, one thing that made this book(s) stand out is that it is a frame narrative. Anyway, if the book is narrated by Watson, and he’s retelling Holmes’ story, then would I be right in thinking he doesn’t learn how Holmes solved the mystery until the moment that Holmes divulges it? To me, that’s not really keeping a secret from the reader.

        I guess for me, when the POV character learns the truth or the secret or anything, that’s when the reader should learn it also (give or take a page or two depending on structure).

        Beth’s story is an interesting example. Yes, Beth did a wonderful job! She wrote that, though, more as an exercise on gender-neutral language. She purposely hid specific information from the reader to see if readers could discern the gender of the protagonist based on only dialogue and events. Because it was Beth (:)) and because I understood the point of the exercise, I was willing to overlook the secret-keeping. However, had I come across that story under different conditions I would have had a different reaction–that the author kept back information for the sole purpose of surprising me. And, as a reader, I prefer to be a part of the story, not a game piece.

        Regardless, I appreciate that there are different opinions on the matter. Bottom line: if you can write it well, then go for it! 🙂

        Thanks for commenting!

  20. Question: Does it count to keep a secret from your readers if the protagonist doesn’t wish for anybody to know that secret about them? For instance, in a novel I’m writing, I jump between two character’s thoughts per chapter. But one of the characters has a secret she doesn’t want anybody to find out. Then, when she is fighting it, the secret raises to the surface and the reader finds out first. Then she confronts who she needs to. Is that a deceptive thing to do to the reader?

    • Hi Mizzblonde09,

      Regrettably, I personally feel it is deceptive. Mind you–this is just my opinion. Others might have a different take on it.

      I really have trouble believing that your protagonist would never think about this secret–especially if she is so desperate for no one to find out. It would have to be on her mind constantly. If we are in the protag’s head in your book–how are you getting around this secret? Do you leave it as a cliffhanger in each chapter? Do you allude to it at all? Once, twice, I could probably handle. But if it’s being dragged out—then I would be frustrated, as a reader.

      If you’re saving this secret to be the climax of your book, then to me, that means your entire book hangs on this one secret. Ask yourself this: If you took that secret away, do you have a story?

      Readers, in general, want to be a part of the story. When they are kept out of the plot as it unfolds, then you have essentially put up a wall between your readers and your characters. Why do you want to do that?

      Why would it be so terrible that your readers know what the secret is from the very beginning? Think about it. If your protag is sympathetic and likeable, then your readers are going to be on the edges of their seats hoping that this secret never comes out. That is more suspenseful than the “not knowing.”

      Each page they turn they will wonder “OMG, is it going to come out? And if it does, what terrible fate lies in wait for her?” I think that question stirs up more anxiety in a reader than “OMG, I wonder what the secret is?” A secret can be anything, so the tension isn’t as taut as it would be when you know what terrible things could happen if the secret comes out.

      Does this clarify it a little more?

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