I’ve mentioned before that one of the things I do when I’m struggling with a book is read nice things people have said about my stuff–it helps me get cocky, and that helps me write. This often leads me to reread Jo Walton’s stuff on Tor.com because, well, it says nice things. Today I noticed the following thing she said: “I think Brust must be the best person at keeping a secret in the world. There are revelations late in the series that it’s quite clear, on re-reading, that he knew about and was hinting at all the time.”
This gave me to think. At the time, I never considered it as, “I have to find the right moment to reveal this thing.” In fact, I don’t ever remember thinking that. For one thing, it contradicts the “burn story” rule that I have at least tried to keep as a guideline. So, how, in a long series, do you keep the Big Secret until the right moment for the reveal while simultaneously burning as much story as you have wood for? Well, here’s the thing: You don’t. It’s never about keeping anything secret, exactly. It’s simply an extreme case of that other rule, the one about the writer knowing more than the reader.
****** Spoiler for Orca ******
Yes, certainly, I knew all along that Kiera was one of Sethra’s disguises; it was a necessary and not terribly brilliant part of defining Sethra’s character that she would want to keep informed of what the Jhereg were up to, and, if she were to be a thief, obviously she’d be a very good one. But I never said to myself, “I will save this revelation until the right book.” For one thing, when I wrote Jhereg, I had no idea there would be any others. What I told myself was, “This will probably never emerge, but it will have a huge effect on the relationship between Vlad and Sethra, and thus on Vlad’s entire career and development.” No one was more surprised than me when I suddenly came to a moment when it seemed right, necessary, and cool to let the reader in on that–in fact, the only thing I had to do was go back and plant a couple little things to explain how Vlad figured it out.
****** End Spoiler ******
James D. MacDonald, in his lecture at Viable Paradise, displays a miniature house he built and talks about how he constructed it. There is a room where there is a figure of a guy that you can’t see because it is fully enclosed. But, Jim says, he knows it is there, and that knowledge informs how he constructed the house. This is a perfect metaphor. There are many things I know about the world I’m building, and the relationships among the characters, that never make it into the stories, but that, simply because I’m aware of them, have an effect, greater or lesser, on what happens. So, then, the “reveal the big secret” moment never, to me, feels like, “Now I can finally reveal that,” but rather, “Oh, the story would be really cool if this happened right here, and, hey, look, I just happen to have that all set up; ain’t I clever?”
My point is not, in fact, that I’m especially clever. My point is that the old chestnut that speaks of knowing things about your world that you do not reveal not only gives your world additional depth, but can sometimes pay off in other ways. As long as you aren’t so cryptic about so many things that the reader is left in a fog (or you, as a writer, get so wrapped up in inventing things that you never write the story), there is no downside to knowing things you don’t reveal.