A bit of a break

Linda’s blog September 28th 2020

I hope I have been able to offer you some motivation to keep writing over these past few months of worry, uncertainty and lockdowns. I decided to write a weekly blog back in April and I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of coming up with something every week. But, because of family circumstances, I’m now going to take a break. I hope I’ll be back in a while.

One of the projects I’ve been working on is a non-fiction book, bringing together many of the handouts I’ve offered my classes over the past twenty years, plus some of the blogs from this website. AND I’ve somehow managed to conjure up 365 writing prompts for next year! As soon as the book is published, I’ll let you know on this website. I’m hoping it will be in time for Christmas and the New Year.

So, that’s it for now. Please do get in touch with any comments about my blogs over the past months and any ideas for the future. I wish you enjoyment and success with your writing.

Best wishes


Are you warm enough?

Linda’s blog September 14th

That’s not a meteorological question: just asking if you’re ready for writing?

I’ve heard from so many writers over the years that, sometimes, they find it really difficult to get started when they sit down to write. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s first thing in the morning, a quick half-hour inbetween children and household chores, or in the evening when all is (or should be) quiet in the house. They WANT to write. They’re working on a project – a short story, poem, play or chapter of a novel. But they still don’t feel ready.

It would be too easy to use that much-overworked expression Writers’ Block. I’m not 100 per cent sure I believe in it.

There could be a number of reasons why you don’t feel like writing – and probably some of them are perfectly valid, such as responsibilities, emergencies, family or work commitments, not feeling well. But just occasionally, none of those will apply and you need something to help you get started.

This is where a WARM-UP comes in. No sports person will dive straight into a race or a match, a singer won’t begin a performance without making sure their muscles are warmed up and ready to go. It could be the same for you and your writing.

What does a warm-up do?

  1. It gets your brain in gear
  2. It physically gets you warmed up
  3. It eases your way from ‘fun’ or ‘non-vital’ writing into your more ‘serious’ projects

Warm-up exercises can be any length – from a minute or two, to twenty+ minutes. They can be first lines to a story, a theme for a story, character profiles, plot points, story outlines.

I find making lists usually gets my creative side going – my own targets and goals that might come in useful for a future character, the people I’ve spoken to in the past week, the moods I’ve been in recently, the things that make me angry.

Mindmaps (spidergrams) are another creative thinking tool – exploring a subject you might want to use: a good way of finding out what you need to research.

Another exercise that I often use is to delve into my picture collection. I have hundreds of pictures, mostly cut from magazines, of people, places, objects, nature and animals. For a particular story I might search for a picture that fits. For an exercise, I might be brave and pick one at random. Then I could write a character profile, or a paragraph or two about that person. Or I might choose two and decide what their conflict is.

I am no poet but another warm-up exercise I enjoy once in a while is to write a Haiku. That’s a Japanese poem that have five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third, final line. These are often about the natural world or a single moment in time. You can write about anything.

Some writers I know believe not so much in one-off exercises, but more regular warm-up writing, such as a journal or what are called Morning Pages. Journaling can vary from a record of what you’ve been doing, thoughts on whatever comes to mind, or how you feel about your writing. Morning Pages are described by Julia Cameron as “three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning.” If this appeals, look it up here.

The thing to remember about warm-up exercises is they are just that – warm-ups. Once in a while, they might give you an idea for a story. BONUS! Otherwise, there should be no judgement as you write, no corrections, no editing, no expectations. Keep them in a file if you want to – I’m a believer in not throwing away anything your write.

So, please, have a go at a warm-up exercise every day this week. There are 7 to get you started on the Prompts page. Click here. It might become a routine, it might get you going after a lean spell, it might give you some ideas. At the very least it will give you a break from your other projects and perhaps introduce you to other genres.

Happy Writing


ps Sorry I missed writing a blog for you last week. One of those occasional emergencies. Things better this week.

Practice, practice, practice

Linda’s Blog

September 7th

I’ve just had a look through my computer *, and I have five unfinished novels, seven unfinished plays, ten article ideas and 20+ short story beginnings! Some of those, I believe, go back maybe twenty years or so! I don’t know whether that’s a lot of incomplete writing or the average, or maybe you have even more?

Never throw anything away – that’s a favourite mantra of professional writers and tutors. You never know when a particular idea may come in useful.

And I believe it is also useful to read back through some of your older work from time to time – just to see how much you’ve improved. Yes, you do improve. I’m a great believer in practice, practice, practice.  Not everything you write is going to be ready for public consumption or publication. It’s just practice.

You may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule. Anders Ericsson, a professor at the University of Colorado, suggested in 1993 that you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert or master performer. It was based on research done with violin students in Berlin, finding that the most accomplished of them had put in 10,000 hours by the time they were 20.Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success, estimates that the Beatles put in 10,000 hours of practice playing in Hamburg in the early 1960s, and that Bill Gates put in 10,000 hours of programming before founding Microsoft.

So, for we writers, an hour a day will take us about 30 years to become proficient. Three hours a day and it will only take us 10. Where are you on that scale?

But before re-arranging your life, let’s take a closer look at those 10,000 hours of practice.

Imagine you’re a golfer and you start practising your golf swing, day in and day out. If you’re not swinging right, just repeating your old mistakes, then all that practice is completely wasted.

So, the 10,000 hours of practice has to be the RIGHT practice. The Beatles would have been guided by their audience response, Bill Gates as to whether his programming worked or not, the student violinists by their tutors.

A co-author of the 1993 study, Ralf Krampe, said he didn’t believe that practice was everything. He said you had to take into account the QUALITY of the practice, plus support from teachers and family. He said, “But I still consider DELIBERATE practice to be by far the most important factor.”

So, my suggestion this week is to set yourself a DELIBERATE target each time you sit down to write.

  1. Instead of just writing a flash fiction story for your group’s weekly competition, concentrate on finding an unusual setting;
  2. Use a writing prompt to practice dialogue;
  3. Do you tend to use the same forenames all the time? Do some research and change the names in your story;
  4. Does structure let you down? Try using Plotting Points (see blog below from August 24th)

 As for the unfinished masterpieces on my computer! I’ve read a lot of “how-to” articles about getting projects completed. Now I just have to find the time to put all that advice into practice!

( * All my writing projects are saved on an external hard drive that I plug in every day. Just to be on the safe side – wouldn’t want to lose any!)

Have a good week.

Happy Writing.


Our sense of smell

Linda’s Blog August 31st

I thought I’d go back to basics this week and talk about one of the SENSES that can get a little overlooked in creative writing – that’s the sense of SMELL. Many of us are probably pretty good at visual description – the most natural of the senses. And we’re not bad at bringing in sounds from time to time. But taste, touch, and smell? These can get neglected.

The other day I caught myself putting on some perfume in preparation for a Zoom meeting! Why, I asked myself? Technology hasn’t yet devised a way of transmitting smells around the Internet (I could be wrong here: I stand to be corrected) and would we want them if there was? But then I thought about it for a while and this is what I came up with:

  1. Wearing perfume makes us feel good.
  2. It makes us feel more confident.
  3. It’s part of getting dressed up (as Coco Chanel says).

The sense of smell is thought to be the oldest of our senses – vital, of course, for our ancestors, the hunters.

But perhaps the most important aspect of our sense of smell is the way in which it evokes MEMORIES. We all have them, some shared by others, some just of our own.

Vanilla always takes me back, quite a few years now, when I used to watch and ‘help’ my mum bake Victoria sponges.

And a few years ago, I was on a husky-sledging experience in Greenland. We each had a sled, a team of huskies and an Inuit driver. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Except that this was the view (behind the dog team!) I had all day long! Whenever we stopped for a hot chocolate break, I actively encouraged my driver to light up his pipe – oh, that Condor moment! So, doggie smells, hot chocolate and a smoker’s pipe instantly take me back to Greenland

There are three areas in which aromas can enhance our writing:

  • In creating mood: aromatherapy oils for a romantic meal; cut grass for the start of summer; flowers for a birthday.
  • On special occasions: bonfires and chestnuts on November 5th; turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas; candyfloss at the seaside.
  • Unpleasant or dangerous situations: eg smoke in a life-threatening house fire; the smell of bodies at a crime scene; dangerous chemicals; alcohol on someone’s breath.

One thing to remember is that different people will react differently to smells. Lilies might be the loveliest aroma to some people: the blogger Jules Horne says the smell of lilies is one she hates as it takes her back to her childhood when she spent time in a hospital ward full of them.

As with using all the senses, it is important not to descend into cliches.

Freshly-baked bread – find your own way of describing that tantalising smell. The same with the smell of the sea, bad eggs, expensive cologne or perfume.

Here’s a quote from the deaf-blind American writer Helen Keller who was clearly so attuned to her sense of smell.

Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odours of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odours, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away. 

Have a go at one or two of the prompts I’m suggesting this week. Click here. And next time you write, add a scent or two.

Happy writing.


What happens in your story?

And who is making it happen?

Linda’s blog August 24th

Over the past 20+ years I’ve been teaching creative writing, I’ve found there’s one type of story that tends to crop up time and again. It’s where the main character (the protagonist) isn’t the one directing the action. They are passive protagonists.

I often used Cinderella in my classes to illustrate various points, but I do find her a rather annoyingly passive main character. It’s the Fairy Godmother who gets her ready for the ball and it’s the prince who comes to find her. She tends to sit back and accept whatever comes her way – not active enough for me. Compare her to Scarlett O’Hara! She goes full out to get her man and when she can’t have him, she comes up with an alternative plan.Scarlett v Cinderella

Scarlett O’Hara wants Ashley Wilkes. When she finds out he’s marrying his cousin Melanie, Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother Charles Hamilton, to spite Ashley but also to stay close to him. Later, when she needs Rhett Butler’s money to save Tara, she goes after him. He’s in prison so Scarlett turns her attention to another wealthy man – Frank Kennedy, who was engaged to her sister. So, she snares him to get the money she needs.

That’s what your protagonists should do – be active!

I think the active/passive character has been really brought home to me in recent months, because of the Covoid 19 lockdown. Some people have become couch potatoes, drinking and eating more, TV bingeing, and constantly moaning about not being able to go down the pub or get their botox injections! Others have spring-cleaned the house and garden, finished DIY projects, set up regular communication with family and friends, started a new hobby, even a new business from home.

In order to overcome this problem of passive protagonists (like Cinderella), I am going to suggest just a little bit of planning. I can hear sighs coming from one or two of my writers! As I’m sure I’ve said before, if you are the sort of writer who can just sit down and reel off a story with all the right ingredients, then great. I envy you. And you will find plenty of writers who swear they never plan, never have a plot in mind before they start writing – they let the muse take them. Great! But if your muse doesn’t appear one day, try the plotting method 😊

Plotting will give your story a purposeful, forward motion and, hopefully, stop you from going off on unrelated tangents. It will also focus your attention on your protagonist, making sure he/she is in charge.landscape_logoLandscape Artist of the Year

A quick flashback to PAINTING. Do you ever watch Portrait Artist of the Year or Landscape Artist of the Year on Sky Arts? I’m hooked. As I have said, I’m no painter but I watch in fascination at how each artist builds their creation. Some, like the writers above, launch straight in with bold splashes of colour. Others take time in building up an outline of their subject which they will later fill out. These outlines can, of course, be changed during the course of the creation. But it’s a starting point that indicates what the artist is aiming for.

In creative writing, such an outline is, of course, the PLOT. And what I’d like you to think about for your next story, are the PLOT POINTS.

  • Plot points are the incidents which change the direction of the story.
  • These incidents MUST be connected to the protagonist who makes things happen ie
  • The main character does this, then as a result of that, this happens, and then the protagonist makes another decision and this happens, and so on.
  • This type of plotting is known as Cause and Effect, or a Zig-Zag plot.
  • When you start to plan or plot your story, you should list a number of plot points – where the action changes. For a short story you’ll need perhaps only two or three; for novels, many more.

David Trottier, an American screenwriter and university lecturer, defines seven plot points:

  1. The Backstory, or status quo when your story starts
  2. The Catalyst or Inciting Incident that really begins your story
  3. The Big Event that changes your protagonist’s life
  4. The midpoint – a point of no return for your main character
  5. The Crisis – their low point
  6. The Climax or showdown when they face their opposition
  7. The Realisation – your character has changed.

Not every story will have all these plot points, but they are worth considering, whatever you are writing, as they do form a logical, forward-moving structure.

Plot points will give you at least a starting point. They are not set in concrete. They can be changed. Characters may take over your story at will. But at least you have an outline – and you can start writing! No excuses!

Have a good week.


ps the autocorrect wanted to change muse to mouse – 21st-century technology!

Is it any good?

Linda’s Blog August 17th

Judging our own writing has to be one of the hardest things to do. You’ve poured your creativity and probably a lot of your time into producing something that you hope will appeal to others. Obviously, they will be your ultimate test whether it’s reading at your local writers’ group or shortlisted for a major international prize. But before then, how do you know it’s any good?

Thank you to those of you who wrote to say that you found last week’s checklists useful. The first checklist was for you as the writer, and the second, to judge the protagonist’s arc.

This week, I’m going to suggest a few more checks you can do before asking someone else for their opinion or sending out to a competition, agent or editor.

  1. One piece of advice that comes up time and again is, once the first draft is finished, to put your writing away and come back to it later with fresh eyes – as Zadie Smith says with the eyes of a reader.

I recently re-read a novel I wrote some ten years ago. I’d put it away as I thought it needed quite a lot of work and then wasn’t the time. On re-reading, I was pleased to discover I don’t now think it needs that much revising. And at one point, I even found tears in my eyes as my protagonist faced yet another setback in her life!

  1. Once you’ve had a break from your writing, take it out and READ IT OUT LOUD. This will definitely highlight grammar mistakes, wrong words, superfluous words, sentences that are too long, and unintentional repetitions. It may even reveal plot points that need revising, as well as under-drawn, over-drawn, and superfluous characters.

  2. Check the 3-act structure. Do you introduce your main characters, the setting and the conflict in the first quarter of the story? Do problems for your protagonist follow in the second and third quarters? Does your story come to a satisfactory conclusion in the final third? 
  3. Does the opening hook you as a reader? 
  4. Use the character checklist for your protagonist:

Is my protagonist easily identifiable as the main character?
Does my protagonist change through the story?
Does my protagonist overcome a series of obstacles?
Does my protagonist show some of his/her flaws?
Does my protagonist have a worthy antagonist?
Is the resolution realistic for my protagonist?

  1. Do you use your setting (or settings) as part of the plot? Or could the action be anywhere? If so, try changing the setting to one that impacts the plot and/or the characters. 
  2. Is there enough conflict? Or too much?

If YOU are happy with all those checks, then I would say it’s ready for an outside opinion. Choose carefully whom you ask (I’ll be addressing this in a later blog). And always remember, it’s your WRITING they are critiquing, not YOU as a person.

Have a good week.

Happy writing.


A change of scene!

Linda’s Blog August 10th

I’m going to start my blog this week talking about PAINTING. Don’t worry – you haven’t clicked on the wrong web page! But I’m a great believer in cross-training: learning skills in one discipline that can help in another.

In the past week, I’ve been taking part in the Rod Moore 5-Day Painting Challenge. It’s a free online course and as I already had paints, canvases and brushes, I thought it would give me a bit of a break from everything else that’s been going on recently.

Please don’t worry. I am not going to subject you to any of my attempts – I promise!

I’m not and never have been much good at painting. I’ve been on a couple of courses in the past twenty years, but it doesn’t come naturally, so I haven’t pursued it. But the offer of a free five-day challenge caught my interest and I have to say I really enjoyed it.


There’s an hour’s video class each day, which you can stop and start at your convenience, plus daily assignments which you can, if you want to, post on a community web page. The teacher is an excellent communicator: he is good at explaining not only WHAT we should be doing, but WHY and HOW. On previous courses, I’d just been copying photos with the minimum of explanation. We all learn in different ways and I’m one of those who love to know WHY I am supposed to be doing something a particular way – the science bit if you like.

What really impressed me at the end of the course was a series of questions that Rod posed us about how we FELT about our paintings. Not only did I find them useful as far as my artistic endeavours went, but I found myself thinking that they could so easily be applied to creative writing as well.

So here are my questions to ask yourself when you have completed a story (or article):

  1. Am I happy with it?
  2. Is it of a standard I am proud of?
  3. Can it be improved?
  4. What one thing am I particularly pleased with?
  5. What has writing this story taught me?

At this point, I know quite a few writers will be asking WHEN should their writing be offered for public scrutiny. I’ve been on courses, and taught them, where you get writers reading their work that ranges from written an hour ago, written a week ago and left, written two weeks ago and edited a couple of times, to written three months ago and re-drafted four times.

It is entirely up to you when you present your work to others. My only caveat is that you should offer to others the best you feel you can do at that particular stage.

Something you are proud of

I’ve had students preface their readings with, “It’s not very good.” If it’s not very good, why subject other people to it? Always present something you are proud of. It might only be a first draft, in which case you can say so. You might feel the plot isn’t strong enough – ask for help. You might think you have too many characters – ask for others’ opinions. Just don’t say “it’s not very good”!

If you’re not sure your writing is ready for an audience, here is another set of questions. This will help you see if your story has been well structured and has all the elements it needs:

  1. Is it right for my intended audience?
  2. Is my protagonist easily identifiable?
  3. Does my protagonist stay active throughout the story?
  4. Does my protagonist change through the story?
  5. Does my protagonist overcome a series of obstacles?
  6. Does my protagonist show some of his/her flaws?
  7. Does my protagonist have a worthy antagonist?
  8. Is the resolution realistic?

Once you’re happy with those answers, then yes, you’re ready for an audience.

If, like me, you feel like a break and a bit of painting, here’s the link to the Five-Day challenge I did with the Rod Moore Academy.

Whether it’s writing or painting or both, have a good week!


Something a bit different!

August 3rd

Linda’s blog

In recent blogs, I’ve been suggesting what I hope are some interesting ideas for broadening your writing skills, like trying different genres. This week, I’d like to talk about ANTHROPOMORPHISM. Such a long word for what Walt Disney in particular excelled at!

ANTHROPOMORPHISM is a literary device which attributes human characteristics to animals (or objects), such as speaking, wearing clothes, expressing emotions, driving cars, falling in love etc.wordcloud

The word cloud here shows some familiar examples of anthropomorphism, particularly through cartoons.

Why should we use ANTHROPOMORPHISM?

  1. To appeal to children in a more creative, imaginative way.
  2. To teach ethics and morals eg Aesop’s fables.
  3. To write about politics in a satirical way eg Animal Farm.

Walt Disney was the pioneer of the American animation industry, setting up Disney Brothers Studio in the early 1920s. His first popular success was Mickey Mouse in 1928. Disney went on to win 22 Oscars from 59 nominations. Not only did he bring us such wonderful animal characters as shown here, but also the animated puppet Pinocchio.

Before Disney, it was the Greek storyteller Aesop, who was born in 620BCE, who popularised the idea of animals talking and behaving like humans. His tales were originally for adults, as they had religious, social, political, moral and ethical themes. Many hundreds of years later, they became popular as children’s tales.

And in 1945, George Orwell used pigs Napoleon and Snowball in his satirical political commentary  Animal Farm.

Two more literary terms:

REVERSE ANTHROPOMORPHISM is attributing animal traits to humans:
eg He was eagle-eyed: he spotted every mistake in her essay.
He made sheep’s eyes at the beautiful girl across the room.

PERSONIFICATION is applying human traits to nonhuman or abstract things:
eg Justice is blind.
The sun is smiling today.
I’m so tired my bed is calling to me.

If you feel like writing a children’s story with animals, my advice would be to choose an animal or bird that you love and just hope that no-one else has got there before you! Give them an imaginative name and create a character profile for them. Yes, even animal characters should have a character profile. They should have strengths and weaknesses, just like your people characters. What about a giraffe who’s afraid of heights? Or a mouse with an enormous roar? Or a hedgehog with feather-soft spines?

Your animal character can interact with fellow animals or/and with humans. It’s up to you.

If you need a bit of inspiration, here are links to some animal and bird webcams. Thanks to my friend Sue who recommended the Woodland Trust’s osprey nest webcam at Loch Arkaig in Scotland which is the photo at the top. There are a male and a female, and their three youngsters. Wonderful! A word of warning, it can become highly addictive, even watching an empty nest!

Osprey nest click here

Elephants click here

Flamingos (and others) click here 

Giraffes here

Have a look at this week’s prompts if you’d like to try an exercise in Anthropomorphism. It could be the start of a whole new genre for you. Click here for Prompts.

Have a good week.

Happy Writing.


Use your crystal ball!

Linda’s blog July 27th

I recently suggested that we writers should occasionally step out of our comfort zone and try a genre we haven’t attempted before. And it was while reading an Ian Rankin book, that I realised I’ve never given a thought to writing Sci-Fi.

I’ve never watched Star Wars (I think you can get a medal for that!) and I don’t tend to watch or read anything that has paranormal or fantasy about it. I like my reading to be realistic, something I personally can relate to, even if it’s about spies or set in the Arctic!

But then I picked up an Ian Rankin that I hadn’t read called Westwind and was surprised to discover it’s a spy story, written and set in 1990. This is an extract in which The Guardian of March 13, 1987, is quoted:

There is not a square inch of the globe that cannot be photographed or monitored. Somewhere, deep in a vault in the Pentagon and its Soviet equivalent, there is a photograph which if magnified will reveal your house and the make of car you are driving away from it. Oh, and be careful what you say on your car telephone.

Many sci-fi writers have come up with ideas that have subsequently become reality. Here are a few examples:

  1. What is considered by some to be the very first sci-fi novel A True Story was written in the 2nd century by a writer called Lucian. It includes travel to other worlds, extraterrestrial lifeforms and even artificial life. Wow!
  2. Other critics say Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the first work of sci-fi, written in 1818. That contained tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Mary Shelley was just 18 when she wrote it.
  3. Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon was published in 1865, more than a century before the Soviet and American moon missions. The lunar exploration in this book includes three astronauts, a spacecraft very similar to future command modules, retro-rockets to slow descent, and splashing down in quite a specific area in the Pacific Ocean.
  4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley was written in 1931 and describes later developments in medicine, psychology, genetics and social science.
  5. Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was published in 1968 and had tablet computers, teleconferencing, face and voice recognition, orbital space stations and AI.

Other sci-fi authors who had and have fantastic imaginations include Edgar Allan Poe, H G Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K Le Guin, P D James, Margaret Attwood, Douglas Adams, Michael Crichton and Marie Lu. And I must pay credit to two of my writing friends (Jack Bold) who, six years ago, wrote the dystopian novel Quota which is set in 2031.

Grant Spencer, a high-ranking government official, is looking through population reports:

He found the latest demographic reports for China, India and Brazil. These countries had abandoned population controls two years earlier, deeming them unnecessary, as their average population age had risen beyond sustainability without more young people. The flu pandemic of the 2020s had hit China hard and exacerbated the male surplus created by their ill-conceived one-child policy of the late 20th century. It showed the mistake of playing god.

There are many, many different types of sci-fi novels. I had a quick look and found 40+ sub-genres of sci-fi (including steampunk, cyberpunk, time travel and virtual reality) and 20+ sub-genres of fantasy writing. So, if you’ve ever thought that you’d like to look into the future, there are plenty of opportunities.

Do you have any ideas of what life might be like in the future, realistic or fantasy? Improvements in communications and travel; alternative education systems; better healthcare; different types of accommodation? Whatever the material changes, I’m willing to bet that emotions and feelings will be familiar, and those are what bring our characters to life.

Whether sci-fi is my cup of tea, I’m not sure. Although I do have an idea: I have a sundial in my garden, the sort you have to put together yourself. I set it up in the sun at 11am one morning and when I went back a couple of hours later, the time, in my garden at least, was 9am! Watch this space.

Happy Writing.


Shh … do you have a secret?

Linda’s blog July 19th

We all have secrets. It may just be a secret passion for honeycomb ice-cream or a secret fantasy about a film star, or it could be a really big, important, life-changing secret. Are you using secrets in your writing?

The big story involving secrets that immediately came to my mind was Secrets and Lies, the iconic 1996 film starring Brenda Blethyn. She harbours a secret for many years that eventually comes out, and this picture is the moment she realises exactly what happened all those years ago – even she didn’t know the whole truth. I’m not giving anything away in case you haven’t seen the film, but for those of you who have, you’ll remember, particularly for that time, it was quite a surprise!

Secrets abound in novels. My favourites are Maxim de Winter’s secret in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and the wife in the attic in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

Why should we use secrets in our writing?

  • They are part of a character’s personality
  • They can, and usually do, create conflict
  • They can be the central theme or a sub-plot
  • They create suspense and tension
  • They capture the reader’s curiosity

So why do people keep secrets?

  • If it’s their own secret, it could be out of a fear of being judged, embarrassed, humiliated, outcast, blackmailed, arrested. Or they could just not want other people to know – a control/power mechanism.
  • If it’s other people’s secrets, it could be to take and keep control of others (as in blackmailing), or it could be to keep other people in ignorance of something they may not like.

There are different ways of using secrets in fiction:

  1. Where the reader knows from the start what the secret is, who holds the secret and who it will affect should it come out
  2. Where no-one knows there’s a secret until quite late in the story, and then it comes as a surprise/shock (Rebecca)
  3. Where the secret is the main theme eg a secret plot to blow up the Pentagon

Secrets, as with many other writing devices, can get hackneyed and cliched. Beware: the wife who thinks her husband and best friend are having an affair; they’re really planning a surprise party for her.

Illegitimate babies are another quite common secret but if written well, can provide wonderful stories. Philomena tells the true story of a mother (Judi Dench) who keeps the secret of her illegitimate baby for fifty years until she is approached by a journalist who wants to write her story and find her son.

Objects can play a part in secrets eg diaries, photos, sealed envelopes, a stack of hidden money, a hidden gun, a locked room, a key, a letter or postcard, an unexpected gift.

Some of the things that people keep secret include addictions, failures, weaknesses, crushes, ambitions, embarrassments, plans, relationships, unusual or illegal activities.

Part two of writing about secrets is the emotional fallout when the secret is revealed. The surprise 50th birthday party might be just what the recipient wanted, or hated. An illegitimate baby might divide a family or bring people closer together. A hidden stash of money might solve problems or create resentment.

And finally, can your character keep a secret? Do they make a judgement as to how serious it is? A bit of gossip that will get around eventually. Or something that they’d really rather not have known, and which puts them in a difficult situation. If someone tells them they are being abused, what can or will they do? What are the consequences either way?

Have a go at including a secret in your next story.

Please do post a comment, especially if you can think of other novels or films where secrets play a major part.

Happy writing.