Some time ago, I read a review of Emilio Salgari’s Captain Storm, and the reviewer, novelist Gustavo Martín Garzo, had many nice things to say about this classic adventure tale, including how this book taught him “that in literature there should always be a secret story behind the more obvious one, and that as you read, the other story unravels.” This observation intrigued me, and now, whenever I read a great work of fiction, I reflect on Garzo’s words and search behind the apparent narrative for something elusive, connected, but gradually disentangling: the secret story.
I was reminded of Garzo’s wisdom again recently when my husband and I watched Knives Out. Halfway through the film, after the truth seems to come to light, the delightfully eccentric detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, decides the mystery hasn’t, in fact, been entirely solved. He compares the mystery to a donut, admits the obvious resolution fills the hole in the donut tidily, but suggests this neat outcome, upon more careful consideration, isn’t complete: “we see that the donut hole has a hole in its center.” Look closer. There’s more to find. A different explanation.
I loved that movie, its ingenuous plot and satisfying revelations. It’s like the books Gustavo Martín Garzo describes with such appreciation, the ones with their secret stories, novels that invite reflection and reexamination because there’s so much there—layers, depth, and ripely generous resonance. Resonance: that hard-to-define richness that leaves readers brimming with emotion, thoughts, and memories.
How to achieve that quality, writers? I don’t know for sure, but I’m glad I came across Garzo’s words. The claim, itself, has proven instructive, frequently popping into my head for the better part of last year, as I geared up for a new project, reading, researching, and gathering information and ideas. So many times, I wanted to shove aside my notes and wing it—get writing!—but I knew I didn’t have enough to go on. I was still standing in the shallows. I had to swim deeper.
Honestly, I’m pretty miserable when I’m not writing. I feel anxious, depressed, and insecure. But even worse than the state of not-yet-writing is realizing I’ve committed to a project that’s inadequately urgent and insufficiently compelling. I need to take the time to invest in preparations, prod my nascent plot, search behind it, dig deeper—plant deeper. There must be secrets back there somewhere. In this way, Garzo’s words have helped me. If you’re a writer, especially a writer currently dissatisfied with what you’re creating, maybe his words will help you, too.
So often in mystery novels and films, the door that leads to the secret room—the crypt of the undead, the passageway employed by the smugglers, the chamber with its horde of diamonds, sapphires, and gold—is discovered in the library, hidden in a panel behind a hinged wall of books. Not in the kitchen, not in the bedroom, certainly not in the loo. The library. I can almost forgive the predictability of this location, for it sounds exactly right to me. Of course the secret door to the secret room would be found among books, for a book, as any reader knows, is also a door: a portal, a threshold to wonder.
We read to get lost, dwell in mystery, and mine the story’s hidden depths—its secrets. We trust the writer to please us by ensuring there are secrets to be found.