Friday, July 18, 2014

Secrets in plain sight

Riffing today on a blog post by Beth Kephart in which she says, "It is possible to write nearly an entire novel and not know precisely who that mysterious character is until the last late night before the novel is due."

Those of us who write intuitively will find all sorts of themes, symbols, subplots, and characters creeping into our work. Sometimes they go nowhere and get cut out. (Sometimes they wander off the page by themselves. I'll realize I haven't mentioned the brother in 100 pages and don't miss him.) Other times, we find beautiful uses for them. They tie up loose ends, solve problems that we didn't even realize they could.

In The Secret Year, I gave my character an older brother during the first draft. I had no specific purpose in mind for the brother and thought he might get cut out later. Instead, he showed up for Thanksgiving dinner with a subplot that was relevant to the theme of secrecy, and he hung around to guide the main character through the book's main crisis. (Nice work, fictional brother! Glad I didn't whack you after all.) I had no idea he was going to do any of that until I was actually writing the scenes in question.

The draft of Try Not to Breathe ended much earlier than the finished book does now. But I had a nagging feeling that the ending wasn't big enough. I looked back to the book's beginning for a clue. That waterfall, I thought. There must be a reason the book starts at the waterfall. There must be a reason the characters keep going back there. It was only when I focused on the waterfall that I uncovered a secret about it and understood its true role in the story. The interesting thing was that when I went back into the story to seed a few clues about this secret, I found I didn't have to add much. Most of the clues were already there, unconsciously planted.

Everything in a story should have a purpose. If we can't identify the purpose, there are two options. One is to delete the thing. But the other is to look harder at what its purpose might be, to see if there are invisible connections that can be brought to the surface.


  1. Oh, I LOVE THIS. This happens to me on every book, and it's really like magic when you look back on it. Sometimes I'll have no idea why I put certain characters in a book, only to find out later that they are absolutely crucial. I've really learned to trust my instincts because of that.

  2. I just wrote a short article about this very thing. You've really stated the case so well.

  3. I haven't been blog reading much lately, so I'm a bit belatedly here to say this really resonates with me. Your use of the waterfall in TntB is a great example. Very often I think one's subconscious will drive the addition of an element early on that will flower into something cool if we patiently and steadily work to discover its significance in our story world.

    1. There's a part of us that knows where the story needs to go.