This post was originally posted on Birds of a Writer.
But do you really need a big secret to make your story good?
Not necessarily. Although you'll find a lot of books that have this, you don't always need them. Sometimes, a story can be good with a bunch of little secrets or multiple big secrets for more power. But sometimes, those big secrets can make or break a story. When you have a big turning point, you risk the chance of it either being too big or not big enough.
In Night Lies, I have a giant turning point that I don't think that my readers will see coming. Oh I'm sure some will realize it before I reveal it, but most probably won't. InThe Cursing I have a bunch of little turning points. Most end up being big to Tatiana, but some of them aren't huge. In The Prophecy, I have several big turning points, although I sprinkle them up among the story and the other books in the series rather then all in the first book.
Reasons for Big Points
- Starting a book
- Changing a Character's mind
- Cliff hangers
- To keep the story interesting
- To introduce a new idea or a new subplot
- To torture your characters more
- To lengthen the story
- Ending a book
What exactly your big reveal, your turning point, or whatever you want to call it is depends on your story. Not every type of secret is right for your story (long lost friend, everything's a lie, so and so isn't really dead, etc) and you shouldn't put a big reveal in if it actually doesn't have anything else to do with your story other than you want one because it'd be cool and dramatic.
And your big reveal also depends on what your characters can do. Are they up to handling something big? If you have a dangerous secret will they be able to resolve the issue or what will they do if they find this big secret out. Some secrets can be too big or too little for certain characters. If your character finds out that he's the only person who can save the world, does he have the abilities and resources to do so? If your character is one of the only people to survive a hurricane, will they be able to make it to safety in time or save people other than themselves?
There's also the case of when to reveal the big turning point. Some authors wait until the story starts getting boring to reveal a big secret to make the story more interesting, reveal at the beginning for a motive, or wait until the end for a final punch in the gut.
And its the big reveal that not only matters, but the timing is also very important. Reveal too early and you may find yourself with not enough power to get through the rest of the book. Reveal too late and you may not have enough time to resolve the issue.
To make things even more exciting you could add more than one giant turning point for an extra whammy. But be careful, you might find yourself in deeper trouble than you thought. Also remember that if you have a big turning point, your character should be able to fix it (or fail. That could be exciting too.).
If you don't have a big turning point...
That's okay. Remember that its okay to have a bunch of smaller ones. Smaller turning points can be just as dramatic as big ones because you give your characters more than one problem to deal with and they may have a more dramatic effect than one giant one.
But if you choose along that path, keep in mind that too many small but big points may overwhelm the story or the characters. And the more problems you have, the more loose ends you'll have to keep track of. It'd be bad to introduce five or six problems and then more than halfway through realize that your characters never fixed three of those problems. And now you have to fix those plot holes.
And even if you want a bunch of small points or a big one, you can always put that point or other points into another book. Not every idea you have has to go into this one story. And spreading things out can make keep the story fresh, alive, and exciting.
And you don't even have to have a bunch of small ones or a big one. Some stories are fine without the extra baggage and with the one main conflict. Your characters may have enough on their plate without dealing with more.
If you have a big secret or several, it's a good idea to drop hints before hand rather than suddenly drop it out of nowhere. If you do drop it out of nowhere, your readers may accuse you of not being able to continue with the main plot or something equally horrible.
Plus, the best big secrets are the ones that are out in the open but hidden cleverly enough you never really guessed it till it was revealed (Note: this plan may result in side affects in readers such as outbursts of "I should have seen that coming! Or How in the world did I not realize that?" Other symptons of surprise may result in anger, throwing the book across the room, or calling a friend and revealing the big secret.)
Of course, you could always just reveal something out of nowhere, but I find it more fun to toy with readers and characters with hints of the truth rather than a big sudden reveal. Plus, its more fun to watch readers try to figure something out on their own and desperately read the book to find out if they're right or not or whatever.
Four types of big secrets
- Only the author knows (both reader and character are clueless)- Where everyone but you is left in the dark. Sometimes this is effective for bigger surprises rather than little ones.
- Only the author and readers know (character is clueless)- Ah, those times when your readers are either told something important or realize something before the characters do.
- Other characters know (except for certain characters and readers)-Times when your main character is clueless of something everyone else seems to realize (That reminds me of an article I read where firefighters were called to a burning apartment. After putting out the fire, the found the owner of the house still sleeping on his bed. Apparently he hadn't woken once during the whole thing and never felt the heat.)
- Only the author and the characters know (readers are clueless)- This one I don't think I see a lot of, but I'm sure it can happen. When your characters are all aware of something not made known to the readers.
- A Million Suns
- A Long Long Sleep
- A ton of other books.
Genres I think that have the most surprises:
- Science fiction
- Mystery (duh!)
- Other genres of course but those are my top five.