Nov 07 2008
Many stories create suspense by withholding important information (like the killer’s identity, in a mystery) until the end. But publishers usually reject works that are cryptic. How can you make your work intriguing (good) rather than cryptic (painful)?
1. Secrets that are known to the audience, like a superhero’s alternate identity, are usually intriguing rather than cryptic. Will Batman be able to keep his identity a secret from his enemies? That’s an interesting question.
2. It’s also intriguing when the hero tries to uncover a secret, like the identity of Mr. Body’s killer. The detective and audience don’t know the killer’s identity at the book’s start, but it’s intriguing because we can follow along as the hero tries to solve the case. That creates anticipation.
3. However, secrets that are neither known to the audience nor pursued by the characters are usually cryptic. When your mentor reveals on page 200 that Leia was your hero’s sister, your readers’ initial reaction will probably be “what the hell?” rather than “cool!” A secret that comes out of the blue usually isn’t very interesting. There’s no anticipation. In contrast, if Luke had been investigating Leia’s lineage for several chapters, then finally learning that she’s his sister could be neat (although cliche).
Here are some other tips that will help you avoid overly cryptic writing.
1. The reader is entitled to know everything that the point-of-view character knows. If the POV withholds information, readers will probably feel angry and misled but definitely not intrigued.
2. Characters should not withhold information from the POV/audience unless they have a good reason to do so. “But I won’t be able to draw out the plot if the mentor tells the hero what’s going on!” is not a good reason. “I want to surprise my readers later on” is even worse. When an author withholds information to surprise us, we probably don’t have enough information to understand and enjoy the story as it is happening.
3. Deception is generally confusing rather than intriguing. When one character says that he’s 17 and he later turns out to be 14, readers will typically conclude that the author has made a mistake, not that the character is lying. Here are a few tricks to help readers keep track of a deception-laden plot.
- You can give the character a reputation as a liar so that we will discount what he says.
- Make it clear that he has a reason to lie. For example, a defendant in a murder case will claim he’s innocent on the witness stand. Because he has so much incentive to lie, readers will take his statements with a grain of salt.
- You can use phrases like “he claimed” or “he lied” to make the statements seem dubious.