When I began writing The Marriage Lie, I knew right away it would be different than my first two books. My first two novels were women’s fiction with a dash of suspense and some romance, but this story—a husband dying under mysterious circumstances, a wife determined to dig up the truth about the man she loves—could only be a suspense. There was really no other way to write it.
I set out to write the type of story that I love to read, one with a strong, likeable woman in the lead role and enough plot twists to keep the reader guessing. My heroine Iris is not a spy. She’s not a private detective or a trained killer. She’s an ordinary woman living an ordinary life…until something extraordinary happens: a plane crash steals her husband of seven years, but with a twist—it’s a plane she didn’t know he would be on. This is the event that flips her life upside down and sets the story in motion.
Any story’s motor is a question, planted in the reader’s mind early on. In The Marriage Lie, there are multiple. Why was Iris’s husband on that plane? Why did he lie? What was he trying to hide? And then a bit later, was he really even on that plane, and why would he want to fake his death? All of these questions point back to a central story secret.
Secrets are a great device to drive a plot. They provide tension. They motivate lies and murders and blackmail. They bring out the worst in your characters and cloud the story up for your readers. They make a character compelling and unpredictable. What has he done that’s so terrible, he’ll do anything to keep it hidden? The reader will want to know.
In The Marriage Lie, the secret belonged to Iris’s husband. Iris knows he’s hiding something pretty quickly after the crash, only she doesn’t know what. His is a secret that stems from his past, from the time before he met Iris. These are in my opinion the best kinds of secrets, the ones that involve something from a character’s backstory. What horrible, awful, terrible thing is he trying to hide? How did this thing change him, and why? Secrets are like Christmas presents, ones your reader will be dying to rip open.
One of the most powerful ways an author can use a secret to move a plot forward is to surprise the reader with it, to give the reader a secret they didn’t see coming, one that makes them gasp out loud when they come to it. I used this technique in The Marriage Lie, and it is hands-down the one I hear about most from readers. To be effective, these surprises can’t come out of the blue. For mine, I worked backwards, building in hints that made sense to the story at the time, but that (I hoped) didn’t tip the reader that a surprise is coming. It’s kind of tricky, working in a surprise or secret that changes the reader’s perception of the story that came before, but when you do it right, readers love it.
Ultimately, writing a good suspense story is about managing the flow of information to the reader. Information that is released too soon kills suspense, while information withheld for too long can lead to frustration and confusion. The trick is in finding a happy balance. Offer readers questions. Hint at characters’ secrets. Dole out partial answers in juicy tidbits that elicit even more questions, and do it in a way that works for your story. We humans are curious creatures, hardwired to want answers. Give readers a story that keeps them guessing, and they’ll keep reading until the end.
The Marriage Lie by Kimberly Belle is out 29th December (HQ, £7.99)
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