In you couldn’t tell by the huge number of books I’ve read in this genre for the past year and a half or so, I’ve been on a bit of a contemporary genre kick. I still read paranormal books, but definitely not as much as I used to, and I often like cleansing my palette in between paranormal and fantasy books by reading a couple contemporary books. Of course, this means that I’m a lot more aware of some common tropes and twists in the contemporary genre. I address some of the character tropes in my Common Archetypes posts, but this is a better spot to vent about a plot trope that has really gotten on my nerves lately: the Big, Dramatic Secret that is alluded to for at least half of the book before the author finally spells it out for you halfway through the story.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m not always the most patient person, and this trope doesn’t just conflict with my thoughts of “Now, tell me now!” – it can often build up a secret so much that it collapses under all that pressure and the big reveal falls kind of flat.
This has happened to me with multiple books, but mostly contemporary, it seems. One that immediately comes to mind is Morgan Matson’s Second Chance Summer. There’s some big and secret dramatic event that caused the break-down of a friendship and a budding romance, but the story doesn’t tell us what this is until at least halfway through the book. With each new mention of it, the suspense builds up further and you expect bigger and better things, or at least I did.
By the time we find out what it was, I felt really let down. Even if there hadn’t been any build-up, I think I still would have been slightly unimpressed – I mean, a friendship and a romantic relationship ended over something that was really all a misunderstanding? – but because there was so much build-up and I was seemingly promised a lot more pay-off than I got, it made the reveal even more disappointing and frustrating. If it were for the emotional punch this book packs in its finale, this book would have gotten a much lower rating because the Big Secret and its sad reveal really messed with my enjoyment of that storyline.
Second Chance Summer isn’t the only book to do this, obviously and unfortunately. Lauren Barndholdt’s Sometimes It Happens alternates between present day and everything that happened “Before,” meaning before the deep dark secret that you can kind of guess but still have to sit through for the Official Big Reveal. The story in general wasn’t all that interesting for me, so having to sit through the Big Secret just made it more frustrating and definitely hurt this book for me.
Barnholdt also used the Big Secret in another of her books, Two-Way Street (and I haven’t read any of her other books, so it might show up in all of them for all I know), but a more interesting story kept me from getting too annoyed, but it’s definitely a crutch for dramatic tension that neither of her stories really needed.
This trope doesn’t have to ruin a good story, but it definitely doesn’t help a mediocre one. It just feels kind of lazy to me – rather than creating new tension, you keep a secret hidden so that the reader is anxious to learn more about it and keeps reading. Keeping a secret for the first few chapters isn’t too bad, but when you build it up over half of the book, it can really fall short – at least, that’s the way it seems to me. I love dramatic secrets in contemporary and other books, but not when I have to read 200 or so pages just to know what the heck the protagonist is vaguely talking about every time it comes up.