word craft


Writing Tip: Bruce Coville

I’ve invit­ed a group of top-notch writ­ers to share their writ­ing tips with you this sum­mer. Look for a new bit of learned expe­ri­ence each Tuesday.

Bruce Cov­ille: Tan­ta­lize Your Read­er with Secrets

One of the most irre­sistible things in the world is a secret. Seri­ous­ly, what is your imme­di­ate reac­tion if some­one tells you they have a secret? You want to know what it is! After all, the three great dri­ving forces of the human psy­che are love, hate, and the need to get our noses in oth­er peo­ple’s busi­ness. This last makes secrets a writer’s stealth weapon to hook­ing a read­er right on the first page. Sim­ply let­ting your read­ers know, direct­ly or indi­rect­ly, that your main char­ac­ter is with­hold­ing some­thing, pro­vides a great impe­tus to keep reading.

It can be bla­tant. Open­ing with a line like, “I nev­er told any­one the truth about what hap­pened with Bil­ly Jenk­ins, and I don’t intend to now. But I have to talk about what hap­pened after­ward….” means your read­ers are darn well going to want to know the truth about Bil­ly Jenk­ins. It is also an implic­it promise that you’re going to tell them … even­tu­al­ly, in your own good time.

It can be less overt, of course: “I knew some­thing was both­er­ing my big sis­ter. Now I wish I had­n’t worked so hard to find out what it was.”

Even an open­ing line as sim­ple as “‘Well, that was nasty, was­n’t it?’  said Martha” cre­ates a series of ques­tions in a reader’s mind. What was nasty? Who is Martha say­ing this to? Curios­i­ty dri­ves the read­er forward.

My friend Michael Stearns, one of the best edi­tors I’ve ever worked with, once said “a nov­el should be a trail of secrets.” Think of this aspect of writ­ing as “the art of with­hold­ing infor­ma­tion” … always with the ongo­ing promise that there is more to come.

So go ahead. Tease your read­ers. Tor­ture them with curios­i­ty. They’re going to love you for it.

One last warn­ing, though: you had bet­ter make sure that the secret, when revealed, was worth all the fuss!

Take a flight over to Bruce Cov­ille’s web­site. There are books, audio books, tele­vi­sion shows, and more to explore.

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