Fantasy Series: Keeping the Big Secret

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 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.

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20 thoughts on “Fantasy Series: Keeping the Big Secret”

  1. In my limited experience, writing deliberately towards a “reveal” (and how I hate that word as a noun) is the best way to come up with a contrived and awkward monstrosity that deflates more than it pleases. But on the other hand I never want to be told outright things that should remain hidden or unspoken, and I want any incidental revelations that arise to seem natural and even obvious in retrospect.

    So in other words: woot :)

  2. You can always tell when authors haven’t put any work into their world’s background. When they have, characters can make references to things as casually as we do in real life, and the references seem perfectly natural even if they refer to an event that’s never been mentioned before. That’s what makes the story feel real and not formulaic.

    You & Robert E. Howard are two of my favorite writers for that reason – having created a complete world history and then not dragging it into every story, but simply referring to it in a matter of fact way as you go.

  3. My problem with that particular secret, was that in my mind, the two characters weren’t the same size. Which is odd, as I’m not one that visualizes how characters look much – and you never indicated their sizes.

    Donald Westlake once lost the rights to write about his main character and created a very similar character. When he got his character’s rights back, it was too late to combine them – he *knew* that they didn’t look at all alike, even if we didn’t know that.

  4. You’re so keen! *snrk*

    Seriously, though, far too many writers try to force things in the way they think they should go, instead of building good characters and environments, and then just letting things happen naturally. I’ve been reading your work since the 80s, because you do the latter very well.

  5. I dunno why, but it thrills me right to my toes to finally see what was happening behind the curtain for that reveal.

    I think I’m also delighted how, if the reader skips Orca for some reason, they can read the other novels without it ever being spoiled. You’re delightfully coy about that in every novel that follows. Same, mostly, with Lady Teldra post-Issola — although I guess Hawk breaks that rule, since she becomes a major part of the narrative there.

    I’m not sure I’ve heard you talk about the “burn story” theory, although some is implied here. (Did we talk about that at VP? Is my memory that bad?) Do you have a post about it?

  6. I first heard the term from Emma Bull. The idea is, don’t hold back. Pull out everything with every story, and trust yourself to be able to do it again with the next one. If you find yourself saying, “But I do that really cool thing now, what will I do next?” stop thinking that, and just do that cool thing.

  7. @howardbrazee: I wondered about that too — the height difference — but iirc, Vlad says or thinks something like “That couldn’t have been easy, with Kiera being smaller than you… but then, you /are/ Sethra Lavode.”

  8. Emma and I got “burn story” from TV writer friends. Dunno how far back it goes.

    I think “keeping the big secret” falls under “POV solves everything”. In this case, when it’s important to Vlad, it’s in the story; when it’s not, it’s not.

  9. First: consider yourself complimented. Get all confident and go write! :-)

    Second: when you are done with Dragaera you need to write an appendix letting us in on the stuff you left out of the books. It would make a re-read fresh. And yes, I have read the series twice and plan on reading it again when you are done. I guess that is another compliment.

  10. I need the working illusion that you did not know about Lady Teldra all along, even though you probably did. Otherwise, you would be a horrible, horrible person.

    Jack Vance was probably the only writer who could actually put all his epic background material into the novel and not seem like he was forcing it. (Even Tolkien just gave you appendices and the odd tune.) I appreciate people like Gene Wolfe who just drop you into the world as it is, but I am not sure I would want every book to be like that. I think you hit a good balance.

  11. Several years ago, I re-read Jhereg and got a strong “Huh!” reaction to an exchange between Vlad and Kragar as the latter implies he got into Lyorn records by seducing a Lyorn record smith. Vlad says something like “I’m surprised she noticed you” and Kragar replies (somewhat wistfully, to my inner ear) “They never do until it’s too late.”

    Well, I think to myself, Kragar somehow knows Aliera (and she knows him but thinks so little (?) of him that she won’t even acknowledge him for the most part. So, with Karagar’s ability to go unnoticed, his relationship (?) with Aliera, the mysterious provenance of Devera…. Silly, but I then went through everything from Jhereg through to Issola trying to find “evidence for the Kragar/Aliera liaison.

    Thatone could even be inspired to this level of fruitless yet satisfying idiocy is a tribute to the author. Or so it seems to me. Well done, skzb: if we want to think ourselves into circles, your complete world incompletely revealed will allow any mind too small to wander for years.

  12. Well I certainly do not agree that you are not clever. I read a lot and I don’t find many authors capable of surprising me the way you have in the Vlad series. I mean, you drop even more hints about the relationship of Sethra-Kiera-Vlad in Taltos, which is the beginning of the story in Vlad’s chronology and the point in which you make the reveal in Orca was perfect. Caught me totally by surprise and even on re-reads, I feel I would have had to be incredibly perceptive to figure it out even with the subtle hints. But the best thing about the reveals is that they feel genuine and not forced. There are no “Search your feelings Luke, I am your father” (which felt very contrived to me) moments in your reveals.

  13. Eliezer Yudkowsky, author of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, comments on this exact topic in his essay on “Solvable Mysteries”, part of his “Abridged Guide to Intelligent Characters” essay series. He offers his New Improved Recipe for how to build mysteries, clues, and hints into your story:

    First, know some really important and plot-determining background facts that your viewpoint characters won’t know and that the text is not going to state explicitly until the end of the story.

    Then make absolutely no effort at all to conceal these facts. Absolutely do not leave false trails for the reader, besides any misdirection that antagonists may realistically employ to deceive protagonists. Don’t try to obscure hints and clues that you think are too explicit. Don’t worry about the reader figuring things out too early. Just let the facts cast whatever blatant huge shadows they want, so long as the story doesn’t literally, explicitly blurt out the actual truth right there in the text.

  14. Has someone from a less popular series ever beaten someone from a more popular series in that? Just wondering.

  15. SKZB – The research required for a proper answer to that question would require more time and effort than I’m willing to put into it. I see your point though. The couple of champions that have represented you thus far have fallen short. The pre-battle short story left me wondering if the writers even read the books that the contestants are in.

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