Spoilers in here for Gone Girl, The Meaning of Everything and The Circle.
The most riveting aspect of some stories is what’s not there.
What would happen if, on the first page of a murder mystery, the author exposed the murderer, how the victim was abducted, tortured and then brutally killed?
Gone would be the experience for the audience to ponder the suspects, to learn inch-by-agonizing inch where the murderer did it, how they did it, and how they tried to get away with it. In other words, there wouldn’t be a mystery at all.
What keeps us reading is the missing information — the things we don’t know. Some things are hinted at but not spelled out, other things just seem odd. Little clues are planted by the writer to keep us guessing, pondering, thinking.
When we’re thinking, we’re engaged and keep turning pages. That’s why murder mysteries are so popular: our brains go click, click, click as we try to figure out who is guilty.
But missing information isn’t just for murder mysteries. All genres, including non-fiction, can benefit from keeping secrets from the audience. In The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, the key contributor of entries politely turns down invitations from the editor to attend events or meet, yet submits volume after volume of beautiful work. Eventually the editor goes to this contributor’s address to thank him in person. At the address is an insane asylum.
Missing information is the striptease of storytelling. It creates tension and surprise. It turns the story in a new direction, or reveals the reason for odd behaviour.
In Gone Girl, Amy has gone missing. Her husband, Nick, tells us that he’s lying to the police, but doesn’t tell us what he is lying about. He admits to having a temper, to hating his wife, and never fully says that he’s innocent. Meanwhile, he has a disposable cell phone that keeps ringing. He doesn’t answer. He wants to throw it out. The missing information: he’s having an affair. He looks guilty because he feels guilty.
In some stories, the secret is not something hidden by a character, but the author. Again in Gone Girl, Amy’s journals are a fiction created by the character, but the reader doesn’t know this. She learned of Nick’s affair and is furious enough to doggedly plot and plan her revenge for months. She creates a journal that leaves a trail of clues that show her as the good guy and Nick as an angry, brutal husband. As we continue to read years of faked entries, we grow to like this fictional Amy, even if there are aspects that seem a little too perfect or a tad too cliche. Half way through the book her ruse is revealed and we meet the very sick puppy that Amy is. Someone capable of knifing herself so she bleeds until she’s faint, who plans on killing herself to enact her revenge.
The biggest piece of missing information a storyteller can create (methinks) is to serve us the bad guy as the good guy. When we discover the truth, it turns our world upside down. We’re forced to revisit all that has come before, click, click, click. It’s a trend I’ve noticed in a few novels of late.
In The Circle, for example, Mae is established as the protagonist, hired by a Google-like conglomerate in a low-level job. At first she struggles in her new role. But as the story progresses and she buys into the company’s mantra to the point of turning in friends, we realize that perhaps she isn’t the one we should be rooting for.
Turning your protagonist into the antagonist is a ginormous leap to take. You don’t need to go that far unless you have a good reason.
What skeletons are rattling in the closet?
Other opportunities for missing information lie in the shameful fact a character wants to keep hidden, until…. The person your character doesn’t want to face because… An unsavoury ambition, such as Amy’s goal of seeing her husband fry… A secret from long ago never shared, such as a child who was given away… A vice they’re trying to hide, such as drugs, smoking or pornography. That uncle who drinks too much and then gets in his truck as everyone in the family looks the other way. The death (or other event) that didn’t happen exactly as now told. An object with a significance never shared. Something that didn’t happen, but was very much wanted, such as the pregnancy in, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?
Look for it in positive emotions as well as bad ones. A character can be hoping for something to happen in the future, such as someone to return from the past. Do remember that a key theme of many fairy tales: Be careful what you wish for.
Your job as writer is to slowly peel away the secrets, layer by layer. To give your audience a striptease that makes them wonder what’s next, what’s real, what’s not? To yearn for more. To make them think.
The question to ask yourself: How far will my character go until they are forced to reveal their secret? Then, take the character to that place, because that’s the writer’s job.