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"Watch my brains a minute, and see them whirl around."
Secrets and Mysteries 
18th-May-2006 08:52 pm
CAIN: Are you looking for a mystery or a secret?
ABBY: I ... I don't know. Is there a difference?
CAIN: Of COURSE there's a difference! Mysteries are wonders that you can ponder and share. Secrets are a burden to carry ALONE!

--Swamp Thing 33, "Abandoned Houses"
(collected in Swamp Thing: Love and Death)

A secret is something the reader is not supposed to know until the author reveals it.

A mystery is something the reader may (or may not) figure out on their own. Many mysteries are also revealed, but not all of them.

Or as Cain puts it, a mystery is a wonder. A secret is a burden.

A mystery, therefore, is part of the narrative structure of the story. (It's no accident that "sensawunda" is a prized characteristic in certain subgenres of sf. Wonder is one of the most precious things art can give us.) I have not read Agyar, but I understand that its mystery is never given a reveal. The identities of most of the main characters in A Night in the Lonesome October are mysteries which the reader is supposed to solve. Silverlock is compounded of nothing but mysteries.

A secret is more problematic. It's a burden on the story, like the Albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner. Now, the Ancient Mariner had to carry that Albatross for a reason, and it may be the case that the story needs its albatross, too. Bone Dance is the best example I can think of, where the secret is a secret the narrator is keeping from readers and other characters alike, and the reveal is about the story's themes as much as it is about the secret itself.

But you have to be very careful when you're tying an albatross around your story's neck. Is the payoff going to be worth the weight? Does the secret have a purpose? That is, can you explain why this secret is something that must be hidden until the reveal? Or is it just a secret that you're keeping in order to have something in reserve? An ace up your sleeve? That's a metaphor for cheating, and that's exactly why secret-keeping is such an ambivalent pastime in fiction.

Mystery writers in the Golden Age of detective fiction (Queen, Carr, Sayers, et al.) abided very stringently by the rules of fair play. All the clues had to be in the narrative for the reader to find. Even in The Five Red Herrings, when Sayers deliberately and explicitly withholds the identity of one object, it is possible for the reader to deduce from context what that object is. Early Ellery Queen mysteries even have an intermission, an entr'acte, called The Challenge to the Reader, in which the narrative stops dead for the narrator/author to assure the reader that they have all the information necessary to solve the mystery. Golden Age detective fiction makes mysteries and the solving of them thematic. And they don't cheat. The exception, of course, is Agatha Christie, who sometimes does cheat for the sake of a parlor trick.

And Agatha Christie is a good example of why cheating doesn't pay in the long run. Many readers are offended (by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in particular, although that's hardly the only possible example), and even if you aren't offended, once you've read one of her trick-writing stunts, you will never read it again. There's no point. And that's why keeping secrets for the sake of it is meretricious: the effect depends entirely on the surprise.

So that's one question to ask. If you take away the surprise, the secret, what's left for the reader to care about? What would make them read this story a second time? (I know not all readers are re-readers. I am, and it's something I value very deeply in the books I love.) And I'm not saying that there can't be reasons. Diana Wynne Jones's books often have secrets (A Tale of Time City is, I think, my favorite example), and I will happily reread them over and over again.

The other question is, is the albatross of the secret breaking the story's back? What shift and shenanigans are you putting yourself and your characters to in order to keep the secret safe? (Note that there is a difference between the characters bending over backwards to keep secrets and the narrative bending over backwards to keep secrets.) And is the secret worth the bother? Again, the answer may be yes.

The part that's important is asking the question, and asking it honestly. And remembering the difference between a secret and a mystery.
19th-May-2006 02:11 am (UTC)
To return to one of the authors whose works have been referred to already in the post: Orca.

That's a secret that caused me to re-read not only that book, but several other books, with the reveal in mind. (Also known as the "holy crap, that just turned my brain inside out" moment.)
19th-May-2006 06:41 am (UTC)
Hrm. I guess my question would be: In addition to turning your brain inside out, did the secret make sense? Was it emotionally consistent with previous events in the series? Did the secret's revelation add anything to those previous books?

It seems to me that there might be a class of secret in between the albatross-around-the-story's-neck and the unresolved mystery, which isn't hinted at like the mystery would be, but is hiding in plain sight, or at least in the interstices of the setting or character relationships. The audience has no reason to know that it's there, but the author isn't cheating them, either: It's just not something that's come up yet, and its revelation can be powerful without being cheap.

19th-May-2006 03:41 am (UTC)
While the secret in Agyar is never stated explicitly, most readers will figure it out. (By "most," I mean the same percentage as can figure out how a Barbara Cartland novel will end.)
19th-May-2006 08:43 am (UTC)
And there can be massive sense of anticlimax when Dread Secret that has driven plot is finally revealed, and reader goes 'Is that it?'
19th-May-2006 05:02 pm (UTC)

That's the other problem with secrets. Their worthiness tends to be more than a little subjective. Ignore the man behind the curtain!
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