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.

Linda