I am a huge fan of secrets in storytelling. Recently, while struggling with the best way to conceal (and subsequently reveal) one in a project of my own, I decided to escape to the cinema.
Best. Decision. Ever.
What I saw was the gorgeous 2017 (US release) François Ozon film, FRANTZ.
During the film itself, I simply sat captivated. Like most books I read, this was a historical, set in Germany and France after the Great War, and it had a bit of everything I love–mystery, tragedy, even a hint of romance. And then came the film’s secret: that glorious midpoint where everything you thought you knew about French veteran, Adrien, is flipped on its head. Aaaaaah. Though some viewers might guess the secret, the distraction of what you’re led to believe it is offers an impressive surprise when it’s revealed. Its placement at the midpoint turns a very good film into a fantastic one.
And this is what a well-placed secret in storytelling can do for you.
How do I know this? Because during the credits, I learned that FRANZ is based on a 1932 film, BROKEN LULLABY, directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
Luckily for me, my dad is a classic film buff, and he happened to have the original Lubitsch film on hand. Lubitsch is a fantastic director, and BROKEN LULLABY is a very good film. But the biggest difference between it and FRANTZ is that here, the secret is laid out in the very first scene. It’s still tense; it’s still traumatic for the characters. But the viewers here are *in* on the secret rather than surprised by it as they are in FRANTZ. This reminded me of feedback my critique partner, Michelle, once gave me on one of my projects that:
[…] you can choose to write it as surprising the reader or surprising the characters, and either can be done in a way that would make the reader go, “Wow, that was so well-done!”
This couldn’t be truer. It’s all up to you as the writer in the end, and sometimes getting the secret out on the first page is the right thing to do. But just remember that it might also be helpful to hold on to that secret for a little longer. Either way, best of luck with all your secrets!