Ishmael does one thing against his better judgment when he boards the Pequod. He doesn’t insist on getting a chance to size up the whaling ship’s captain. In fact, he doesn’t see Ahab’s face until the vessel is out to sea and it is too late to change his plans. And, other than the rants of a pesky oracle, it’s all a surprise to him.
Almost any romantic comedy you can think up turns on a secret that must be revealed before true love can find a way.
Okay. As you may have guessed, I’ve turned back to secrets after leaving them alone for a few years. Why? Because I’ve been reviewing some of my works to see how I can tune them up, and, over and over again, I’ve found hidden knowledge of what sort or another can add power.
But not every secret makes a story better. To really do the job a secret:
- Must be significant in and of itself. If it doesn’t mean something to the reader and the characters, it can’t do its magic.
- Must not be obvious, if readers don’t know. No one likes to guess the killer three chapters before the end of a mystery.
- Must suggest real consequences, if readers do know. They should worry about what will happen when the truth comes out.
- Must recast or explain what has gone before. Whether they clarify a motive or change the meaning of a comment or turn the whole story, they need to reach into the past and create new meaning and/or bring the theme to life.
- Must suggest “if only” scenarios. Readers should be able to imagine changes along the way that might have effected the final outcome. This is especially true with bittersweet or tragic endings.
- Must be kept for an important reason. The reason can be wrong and may be tied to a misunderstanding, but the person keeping a secret must be strongly motivated and forced to extremes to protect the secret.
Under the best of circumstances, it is the secret the transforms the story, creating resets on the lives of the characters and dramatically changing their fortunes.
One of the best ways to understand and appreciate secrets is to think of favorite stories with endings that you love. Chances are that most of these have surprises that matter in the last act (if not the last scene). Do any of these reflect what’s in my list of Musts? Do they illustrate the impact of secrets on relationships?
Want to use the power of secrets in you own story? Try this. Think of five secrets that your protagonist might go to extremes to keep. Think of five secrets that might put power into the antagonists hands. Think of the most important assumptions in your story and what would happen if any of them were turned on its head.
If any of these make your story better, you now have a secret to better writing.