This Business of Writing

The Secret to Secrets in Novels

In General Information, The Craft of Writing on February 17, 2010 at 7:03 am

Almost every type of novel can utilize the power of secrets to advance the plot and improve the suspense. Think of how many stories you’ve read where something unknown pops up in the middle of the book and shifts the entire story to another track. I’ve come up with five ways to use secrets within your novels to enhance your storyline, increase suspense and even help your characters grown and change during the story.

One of the best ways to use the suspense created by a secret is to make it corporeal, something your characters can see and touch. When utilizing this technique, your reader is allowed to share in the secret and all the interest and excitement the unknown brings. It could be a sealed envelope, a person lurking in the shadows, a photo or a diary. It can be anything as long as your reader doesn’t know what it represents until you want them to know what it represents.

You can use a secret as a source of conflict for your characters. How about the husband who comes home late from work and refuses to tell his wife why?  What if a soldier cannot bring himself to talk about a war experiences, though his wife tells him she’s heard an ugly rumor about that situation. In fact, this secret could even be your entire novel. Regardless, in these situations you’ve got something you readers know exists but is hidden from them for a reason they are not yet allowed to understand. They may just read on just to find out what’s going on.

A third way to take advantage of secrets is to enhance your climactic scene. How often have you read a novel where just as the hero is about to die, he learns a dramatic secret that changes everything and saves his life and sanity? Personally, I don’t care for this use. I think it was Orson Wells who said, and I paraphrase, terror isn’t terror unless the viewer knows something is about to happen. As I recall, he used the example of two people sitting at a table with a bomb underneath. There is much more suspense if everyone knows the bomb is there and are waiting for it to explode, than if it just detonates all of a sudden. I feel the same way about secrets. They have more power if everyone is waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. Regardless my sentiments in this, a climactic secret might be useful to your story and you may wish to give it consideration.

Another common use of secrets in novels is as a vehicle for a plot twist. The secret to this secret is to insure it is truly hidden within your story as you set up your readers for its revelation. In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, (not the movie versions but the book), the creature threatens the not so worthy doctor with perpetual evil unless Dr. Frankenstein creates another creature, a female companion for the monster. When that comes to light, the entire story took on a new direction. If you can work this tool into your novels, it’ll create terrific conflict.

I think the most powerful secrets to use are within you. You’ve got some, just like everyone else. Why not choose those secrets that inspire your life to inspire your readers?

If you wish to use secrets but don’t have one in mind, find real life ones at Post Secret Blog for ideas. (This place is interesting.)

I hope you’ve found something in this article that’ll spark a secret for your novels.

Until we speak again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of “Born to be Brothers” (Coming Soon.)

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  1. Thank useful share !!

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