I was working with a writer this week whom I shall call Steve. Steve is writing a novel and we were working on a bit of dialogue that, in my mind, stopped the story cold.
The scene was between two old friends. Character B was prodding Character A (the protagonist) about a situation that will later explode in Character A’s life. Character B sees clearly the train wreck that is coming, and tries to call her friend out on it, but Character A deflects the prod from her old friend in this way:
“I said nothing in reply. I was not going to get into that conversation. Instead, I changed the subject.”
It was a very small moment, but my notes in the margin were strong: “Wait WHAT? Why wouldn't’ she go there? The reader is DYING to find out! Why are you keeping it from us? This is going to piss off your reader…”
Steve’s answer to me: “Because if I explain it there, it will give everything away. I’m saving that reveal for later.”
Steve, in other words, had a secret he wanted to keep from the reader and he wanted to keep it because he felt that the opposite -- holding his cards really close to his vest -- would pique the reader’s curiosity.
This is a very commonly held belief, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that like. In fact, it works precisely the opposite way. That’s the secret about keeping secrets in writing. They usually only work if you let the reader in on it. Otherwise, the reader will be feeling left out, dismissed, disregarded.
If Steve had instead told us something of the secret, we would have been curious in the way Steve really wanted. If he had written this….
“I said nothing in reply. I was not going to let memories of my mother’s death influence my career choices, and didn’t even like suggestion of such a thing on the table. Who did Sally think she was to question my integrity in that way? She of all people should have known better. Instead, I changed the subject.”
…the reader would have thought, Oh NO I don’t have a good feeling about this, I think this is going to come back to bite Character A, I wonder when that will happen and what she will do and what the consequences of that will be. I’m going to keep reading to see if I’m right and to watch this drama unfold.
We read, in other words, for the WHY of the story – why people do things, what they make of it, what it MEANS to them. We don’t read for the what – for what happens. We talked about this last week on a bigger picture scale, but I wanted to drill down this week to show you exactly how this works.
You can give away what happens all day long as long as you let us know there IS a why and that it’s coming.
A fantastic example of this truth is in the memoir When Breath Becomes Air, which I am currently reading. This book is the story of Paul Kalanithi, a 36 year old man who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer when he was a chief resident in neurosurgery at Stanford Medical School. It’s a tale about life and death – but mostly death. Kalanithi dies in the end. And the reader knows that the moment they read the book jacket copy:
Kalanithi himself reinforces that truth in the very first sentences of the book, in the prologue:
“I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurological resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”
So is not a secret to the reader what happens in this story – not in the slightest. We know everything about what happens.
What we read for is how he makes meaning of his reality – in other words, the why of it. In particular in this case, we have the following questions in our head:
- Why did he decide to write about his own death?
- Why did he decide to have a child when he knew he was going to die?
- Why did his wife agree to that?
- What did it feel like to make that decision?
- What does it feel like to chronicle your own death?
- What does someone who knows so much about what sustains life bring to the task of dying?
I just read a passage last night in which, having gone back in time to Kalanithi’s decision to go to med school and having followed his journey through it, we arrive again at the day of diagnosis. This is now the second time he has written about this day – first in those sentences from the prologue I quoted above and now on this page – page 119. Only moments have passed between the two instances and we are right back with a man reading his CT scans.
“Lying next to Lucy in the hospital bed, both of us crying, the CT scan images still glowing on the computer screen, that identity as a physician – my identity – no longer mattered….”
The only difference to the reader is that this second time, we know even more about why this moment matters to this man in particular. We know that Kalanithi has witnessed many deaths, has wrestled with the meaning of life, has made professional choices based on his beliefs about life and death, and has just suffered the loss of a colleague who took his own life. We know even more acutely what death means to him and we know with more assuredness that death is coming for him.
But again, no one in their right might would stop reading just because we know what’s going to happen. It’s not the WHAT we care about it. We KNOW what. It’s the why we continue to read forward to find out.
In your own work, look for places where you are holding back information from the reader.
- It might be in dialogue like it was with Steve. Make sure you are not being coy with information, that you are not holding back things on purpose. It almost never works – because if the good thing happens on page 100 and your reader never makes it there, who cares?
- It might be when conclusions are being drawn from a scene or situation – it’s easy to assume the reader knows what the conclusion is (Isn’t it obvious? the writer thinks), but we usually don’t. We need to be told. Every time your character thinks a thought or makes a decision or takes some action, we want to know the conclusions the protagonist is drawing from it. Why does it matter, why are we being asked to pay attention?
- It might be in how you are structuring your entire story – giving us far too much what before you let us have any why. We want why
Odds are good that you can add in the why in small and large ways throughout your work. My advice is to err on the side of saying too much. You will do more damage holding back than you do in spilling your secrets.
I’ll leave you with one last moving passage from Kalanithi’s book, where he employs this tactic with masterful precision. He and his wife Lucy are having a discussion about whether or not to have a child, given Kalanithi’s diagnosis. She begins the conversation:
“Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.
That last line – that add on – is what gives that passage such depth and nuance and power. Kalanithi doesn’t leave us to wonder what the conversation means or why it matters. He doesn't leave his question unanswered. He answers it himself, right on the page, and thereby invites us into the heart of his devastating experience.