Thursday, April 14, 2011

Whispering Truths as Writers

The most powerful stories move us in some way. They connect with us and help us recognize or learn something about ourselves or our human neighbors.

Sometimes the power is from a big reveal or a familiar personality playing out choices with results we understand. Other times, that power comes from a little secret the authors whispers to us in the text.

This secret whisper occurs when a certain emotion or moment in the story is punctuated by a single truth that resonates beyond the page and hums a little in the heart. It is the moment when the author peels back the layer of safety on our world and shows us an underlying reality that we might have overlooked, or perhaps not wanted to see at all.

It is the type of secret the soul recognizes.

One of the most memorable truths for me was in Laurel K. Hamilton's Guilty Pleasures, the first Anita Blake novel. Anita gets into a car in the evening with an attractive man she's joining for business purposes. The narrator notes (and forgive me for paraphrasing) that there is always that moment when you're alone with a member of the opposite sex, when you both realize you're alone, that the possibilities of what could come from being alone together come to the forefront of the mind.

I used to think I was some sort of wanton tart for feeling this way-- like it was just my dirty little secret. I thought it was some over active yearning inside me that I'd learned to ignore and not give credence to lest it define me as some sort of sex-crazed maniac trying to escape the closet. Ah, the shame of wanting to be wanted by every male, and the excitement of wondering where it could all go with a complete stranger.

This little illumination on a human truth jumped straight from the page to my heart and forever tethered me to two feelings: 1) I absolutely trusted the author for her wisdom and 2) The story was suddenly more personal because it grabbed some piece of me and pulled it into that world as a participant. Brava, I say.

Another truth I recently came across was in Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey. The young narrator describes herself as withholding information from a benefactor at one point, because that's really the only power a child has over an adult. So true. Yes, Ms. Carey, you have my trust. Tell me more. Teach me more about the little things I've forgotten or wanted to ignore.

It is a marvelous thing as a writer to interject wisdom and observation like some soothsayer for the soul. It breeds trust in our ability to understand people and it invites a more personal connection with the reader. Sometimes, the truth can sing louder than the story.

What about you? What little writing truths sang to you or left a notch on your heart?

Photo courtesy of Photo Mojo.


  1. This reminds me in a strange way of the very opposite of this which I always find to be one of the worst writers crutches there is. Whenever an author wants to hide something from the reader for a big payoff later. For example: "Okay Guys, here's what we will do....". But then the author fails to reveal what this secret strategy was until the payoff comes at a later time. I almost immediately lose interest in whatever it is. What you are talking about builds a trust between the writer and the reader, and really does make you want to keep reading. The other just makes you want to skip ahead to see what all the whispering was.

  2. I agree that the author should engage the reader's trust and keep it, not only with solid writing but with emotional sincerity. I also agree that reveals can be gimmicky, but I do think that a reveal can be good in a book. However, the writer has to credit the reader for being intelligent for it to work. It's the writer's job to make sure that if there is going to be a reveal, that they lay the groundwork with evidence throughout the story, and then in the final act, provide the last bit of information that allows for a shift in perspective where all of the pieces can be seen. The reveal shouldn't suddenly materialize. It's insulting to the reader. But when done right, it can be rewarding. I think mysteries and thrillers especially thrive on that turn in the third act.

    Do you have a favorite reveal in a story? A moment when the story turned and the protagonist suddenly had the information he or she needed to resolve the conflict that you found satisfying?

  3. interesting post. just read a story, "Furhter Interpretationsof Real-life Events" by Kevin Moffett [best amer short stories 2010], that seems on first read to end without revealing; but emotionally, last lines make pieces of narrator emotionally fall into place for reader. The story's about loss but also about writing too. JF

  4. Hi JF, I will definitely have to check that story out, especially if it's a perspective shift that gets the reader emotionally in touch with the narrator. It sounds powerful. Is that your favorite reveal?