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!