Unlock the mystery | The Daily Nerd
Guest post written by author Laura Griffin
Laura Griffin is the New York Times and United States today bestselling author of over thirty books and short stories. His new romantic thriller, Last seen alone, releases September 28, 2021.
Good secrets make good stories.
And this is especially true when it comes to suspenseful fiction. The right secrets are what make an exciting thriller and a mystery mystery. Thrillers love to hide information from readers to raise tension.
I’ve been a fan of thrillers ever since I bought my first Stephen King novel as a teenager. After years of reading all kinds of suspenseful fiction, from paranormal thrillers to cozy mysteries, I began to realize that the best stories had one thing in common: Writers knew how to keep their readers in the dark.
So how do the best writers use secrets to raise the suspense? One way is through rhythm. The author starts the story with a question, perhaps even a minor one. The next time you pick a thriller, try to spot it on the front page. It could be a question on something small, like “Why is this character checked off right now?” To something big, like “How did this body get here?” Most writers will immediately suspend a question for the reader to continue to the next sentence, the next page, the next chapter, in an effort to uncover the answer to that question (the secret) that the author has hidden.
The moment a little story question gets answered, a bigger question has come to take its place, and—There !– the reader is addicted. It is the power of secrets, big and small.
For secrets to be useful in fiction, they must be revealed. The key question is when. Seasoned thrillers distribute information and storytelling bit by bit to keep the story moving. But there may be one or two key surprises (or secrets) that the author has in store during a pivotal moment to maximize effect. Often times those explosive secrets (“The real villain is still out there!” Or “The ally we thought was dead is actually alive!”) End up being a twist, which is the best kind of story secret in the world. all.
Some writers keep the secrets of the story by cleverly changing the point of view. This technique appears frequently in psychological thrillers. Often times, the story unfolds from multiple points of view with a character’s name at the top of each chapter to help readers keep track of any head-jumps. As the reader shifts from one point of view to another, he tries to figure out who might be the bad guy only to find out that it was someone he had been leading from the start. A hint: if you can figure out which vantage point is hidden during critical scenes, like when someone is murdered, you might get your first chance at uncovering the thriller.
Another technique is to go straight out and show a murder or crime from the villain’s point of view, but that character’s identity is carefully hidden, leaving the reader to guess. This technique is most interesting when the perpetrator plants subtle clues for the reader, so that when the secret is revealed, the reader can look back and realize that he at least had a chance to solve the case.
Using an unreliable narrator is an increasingly popular, if not controversial, way for an author to keep secrets. Think Missing girl by Gillian Flynn or The girl on the train by Paula Hawkins. Warning to aspiring authors: readers either love it or hate it! Some people feel cheated at the end of the story, but this technique makes for a curvy story.
Good secrets are the key to good suspenseful fiction. Authors use a variety of techniques to keep the secrets from the reader, then carefully time each story reveal for maximum effect. The next time you choose a thriller, pay attention to the different ways the author keeps you in the dark. If you can identify the author’s technique, you will have a better chance of discovering the secret key that unlocks the story.