Alphabet Blogging Challenge Day 19

It’s day 19 of my September alphabet challenge.

The letter is S

and the subject is SECRETS, SHADOWS and SUSPENSE.

Secrets are often what drive novels. One of the main themes of my novel ‘The Piano Player’s Son’ is that secrets rarely die, however long they are hidden, and they will emerge at some stage with the power to poison the present and the future. Secrets are not so centre stage in ‘Unravelling’, but they are important in helping to form the characters and their relationships, as well as developing the plot.

Two of my favourite novels have secrets at their heart – one, ‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’ I’ve mentioned before; and the other one is by Sebastian Barry and is called ‘The Secret Scripture’. If the revelation at the end of the latter is a bit disappointing, the rest of the novel is so beautiful and poignant that, for once, I agree with the praise it receives, for example powerful and memorable/A beautiful book about human frailty/The unstable nature of memory and identity is beautifully evoked.

But even when secrets aren’t the driving force, a major reason why readers keep turning the pages is to find out what happens or how it happens or why it happens. Readers keep reading as long as there is enough suspense, so a writer needs to be aware of the importance of withholding information.

New writers sometimes struggle with knowing when to disclose information to readers, and how much to disclose when they do. It’s tempting to give away too much too soon. We are used to thrillers providing a trail of clues for readers to follow. The reader grows more and more involved as various clues are dropped into the narrative. But each one leads the reader only one step closer to the truth, while building up to the key revelation. The technique doesn’t apply only to thrillers and crime. Every fiction writer needs to hold back information until the last possible moment. Instead of thinking how soon can I get this information across? the writer needs to think how long can I hold back from telling this?

A useful metaphor is the jigsaw. Too difficult and it becomes frustrating; too easy and there’s no point carrying on, or you race through with little sense of satisfaction. The pacing of the clues is all-important. What’s left unsaid, what lurks in the shadows waiting to be revealed, is as significant (often more so) than what is said.

A technique that is often used in generating suspense is foreshadowing. We’re used to flashbacks – partly thanks to cinema – but foreshadowing can play a role as well. Foreshadowing involves planting clues, both subtle and direct, into the text to suggest things that might happen in the future.

It can add dramatic tension to the narrative, building anticipation for what is to come. A reader might not understand the clues at the time, but will inevitably try to guess what they mean. If they’re right, there is a sense of satisfaction in predicting future happenings, or revelations. If they’re wrong, there’s the enjoyment of surprise: Wow! I didn’t see that coming. But that will only work if the outcome is believable.

I think the best foreshadowing is when the reader picks up subtle clues (maybe without even fully realising) and then there’s the wonderful shock of recognition/realisation when the revelation finally comes –  that sense of Oh, I see!

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6 Comments

  1. I love secrets, suspense and shadows in my reading ~ so satisfying to ‘get there first’ [if one does!]

    As for writing, withholding information, you’re so right Lindsay, the temptation is to ‘just say’ ~ is it some sort of concern that we might forget to say it later that makes us so keen to ‘tell all now’, I wonder?

  2. Becky gethin says:

    Wonderful, Lindsey! I am wishing you could jjust do all my writing for me! Cheers Becky G

  3. Lindsay says:

    I agree with your ‘get there first’, Polly, and it’s also good if you don’t get there and have the surprise.
    Not sure why, but it’s definitely a temptation to spill the beans too soon.

  4. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Becky. I wish I could do a bit more of my own writing! I started the alphabet challenge to kickstart my writing, and I think that’s worked, but I’m now struggling to find the time.

  5. Robin Heaney says:

    The UEA coursebook suggests that where secrets and surprises are concerned, the reader needs to feel that they have worked it out, and been the first person in the world to make the discovery (as, of course, each reader is), rather than having it revealed to them. Not as easy as it sounds!

    The man himself used the foreshadowing technique That Lindsay mentioned. For example, the first time that Hamlet speaks:

    King Claudius
    Take thy fair hour, Laertes. Time be thine,
    And thy best graces spend it at thy will.
    But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son –

    Hamlet
    A little more than kin and less than kind.

    King Claudius
    How is it that the clouds still hang on you?

    Hamlet
    Not so, my lord, I am too much i’th’ sun.

    Good eh? That’s not going to end well.

  6. Lindsay says:

    Agree, Robin – it’s not easy, but the nothing about writing successfully is as easy as it might seem.
    The Hamlet quote is a great example of hinting what’s to come. Thanks for posting it.

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