Keeping a Secret – A Great Backstory Technique

Readers are smart. Smarter than we authors give them credit for. They get where we’re going way before we think they do. I think that’s why it’s so hard to give them an ending that will shock them.

I mean, think of the books you’ve read. How often have you been truly stunned by a plot turn, or an ending? I can think of two: The Haunting of Hill House (still getting over that one, and I read it in high school!) and South of Broad, by Pat Conroy.  Films? The Sixth Sense and Primal Fear. That’s it.

Oh sure, I’ve been surprised by others – where I’ve thought, ‘Oh, didn’t see that coming,’ and I move on. But not stunned.

I don’t write mysteries, but in those, you’re usually reading to find out whodunit, not what the ending will be, right? It’s a foregone conclusion that the bad guy (whoever he is) will be, if not apprehended, at least revealed at the end. And mystery aficionados usually narrow the choices to at least two by that time, right?

I’m talking about a reveal that shocks.

Why is it so hard to surprise readers? Because, while they’re reading, they’re thinking. They’re noting small details and storing them, to be used later to draw conclusions. And because readers are so smart, it takes a lot less clues than you think they’re going to need to get there.

I’m considering this subject because I just finished a women’s fiction novel that isn’t a mystery, but has a reveal at the end of the book. This subject in the background the entire book, but it’s the basement of the plot, characters and motivation that the entire book rests on.

So yeah, it’s important.

I want the reveal to come as a shock to the reader. When I finished South of Broad (no spoilers here – I’m not ruining it for you) I felt like I’d walked into a door. Then I put my head on the table and cried. Now, I’m no Conroy (though I aspire, impossibly, to be), but I want this reveal to hit the readers in the gut – to make them at least pause to take a breath as the implications dawn.

But how do you do that? I’m certainly not the expert, but I’ll share what I’ve learned from this book.

First, the protagonist can’t know the secret. I mean, we’re in their heads the entire book – if this is a big deal to them, they’re going to be thinking about it. If they know it, we’ll know it. You can’t withhold facts to manipulate the reader – it pisses them off. Remember Stephen King’s, Misery? ‘Nuf said.

The secret can’t be the total purpose of the book. If the reader is waiting 320 pages only for a reveal, they’re going to be at best frustrated, at worst, your book will hit the wall way before they’re done. Even if you’re Pat Conroy, you’re not that good.

In my case, the mystery pertained to the past. It’s backstory.

I learned a lot about the effective use of backstory from this book, because it forced me to focus on NOT putting in the actual event.

My story is of two sisters, told third person from the older sister’s POV. We get a hint that something bad happened to the younger sister, in the first scenes. By the third chapter, she’s fallen into serious depression. The reader will probably think/guess it pertains to some kind of sexual abuse.

My protagonist (the older sister) didn’t know the secret. But I did. I had to be vigilant not to let the protag. in on the secret (and yes, it sounds like I’m dealing with a real person, but y’all are writers – you get that they ARE real, right?)

Knowing how hard it is to keep a secret from the reader, I came at this from a different direction. Instead of dropping clues, I worked hard NOT to. I scrutinized every tiny detail to be sure I wasn’t saying one word more than what was needed to make the plot hold, and the motivations make sense.

And in doing this, in taught me the BEST way to handle backstory. Which is, using as little of it as possible.

When the younger sister falls into a catatonic state, she’s put in a mental facility. The older sister gets a job that takes her on the road. She has her own arc – her own problems and challenges.  The story moved on. This not only distracts the reader from the mystery, it (if I did it well), makes the book rich and layered. The mystery falls into the background, as I wanted/needed it to. The book is really the older sister’s story.

The backstory stays alive through the protag’s thoughts. Think about it. If this happened to you, how would your sister being catatonic effect you? This is a great way to slip in slivers of backstory.

Thoughts: Wouldn’t your mind keep coming back to the problem like a toddler’s hand to a checkout stand candy display? Even if you don’t have the answer, your mind would work at the problem.

Focus on the details: Have you ever lost a loved one? I have, and I still see that person in the flash of a second – a stranger’s gait from behind, the curve of a cheek, in passing. I want to pick up the phone and call, when I see something that would tickle them. I’ll caress a shirt I know they’d love on a rack I pass in a store.

Flashbacks: These can be powerful, but again, you need a lot less than you think. I inserted only a couple of two-paragraph slivers, maybe twice, in the whole book. They deal with the sisters’ childhood, to explain the older sister’s world-view.

The above are what our own Orly Konig Lopez calls, Tiny Tells. They are a split second reminder to the reader. They build the character, one small tell at a time. They are a subtle reminder of the sister, who, though not on-scene through most of the book, is still there in the background.

Which is my last point.

Always Trust Your Reader

Remember how smart they are. You need a LOT less details, hints and backstory than you think.

This is what I learned, by writing my book. Did I apply what I learned well?

I have no idea. I’ll let you know when the book comes out, and you can judge for yourself.

Do you have any tips for using backstory, or keeping Secrets?

Any books or movies whose end actually stunned you?

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