Monday, August 11, 2014

“Want to hear a secret?” Those words make ears perk up from elementary school playgrounds to high school cafeterias to corporate offices. Secrets fascinate us.

Secrets can be powerful tools in fiction. When readers sense a secret is in play, their ears perk up, and they’re drawn into the story to ferret out that secret—and to watch the consequences.

Almost all characters keep a secret. Your job as a novelist is to know why she keeps that secret, to decide when and how to reveal it, how to conceal it beforehand, and what the consequences of revelation will be.

Why a Secret?

Why does your character keep her secret concealed? Perhaps she fears physical consequences, such as being arrested for a crime she committed. Perhaps she is ashamed of something she’s done and doesn’t want people to think less of her. Perhaps she’s hurt or betrayed someone and doesn’t want that person to know. Perhaps she thinks she’s moved past it and would rather forget about it, thank you very much. In In Perfect Time, World War II flight nurse Lt. Kay Jobson comes across as bold and confident. If her secret were revealed, she’d be seen as weak and vulnerable, everything she’s worked hard to overcome. So she doesn’t reveal her past to even her closest friends—and she rarely broods on it.

When to Reveal?

When do you want the secret revealed to the reader or to other characters? These may or may not be the same moments. The most powerful times to reveal secrets are at the turning point between Acts I and II, the crisis moment in the exact middle of the novel, the turning point between Acts II and III, and at the climax. The revelation of the secret can drive one of those crucial moments or the secret can be revealed by those events. You may also choose to reveal a secret at other times, particularly when the revelation serves to build relationships. In In Perfect Time, Kay reveals her secret at the end of Act I. However, the hero, C-47 pilot Lt. Roger Cooper, reveals his secret to Kay in a quieter friendship-building scene early in Act II—but Kay’s knowledge of that secret drives the novel’s midpoint crisis.

A Slow Revelation

Sometimes the reader knows the secret from the beginning. But when the character conceals her secret from the reader, clues need to be dropped to build the mystery. When the secret comes out, you don’t want the reader to feel cheated and say, “What? How could that be?” But you also don’t want them to say, “Duh. Saw that a mile away.” Instead, you want them to say, “Ah ha. Now I understand.” Carefully spaced, carefully worded clues intrigue the reader. Sometimes I list or highlight all those clues in the manuscript and examine them. Do they tell enough? Too much? Should I pare them back? Or do I need more? The best time to drop clues is when the character is unguarded, due to stress, grief, anger, or intimacy.

How to Reveal?

Sometimes secrets are wrested out into the open against the character’s will. Sometimes they are revealed by trauma, when the character’s defenses fall and she spills her heart. Sometimes characters deliberately reveal their secrets to shock or repel people. And sometimes characters reveal their secrets in sweet moments of trust and friendship. What works best for your story?

The Consequences

Now her secret is out. Does this bring utter devastation as her world falls apart? Does it drive away her friends and loved ones? Does it bring closeness and deeper friendship? Remember, different people respond in different ways. The same secret may lead one person to reject her and another to embrace her. Ultimately, if you are writing a story about hope and honesty and faith, the long-term consequences of the revelation should bring healing for the character.

Do you like to use secrets in your novels? Do you have any tips to share?


Sarah Sundin is the author of six historical novels, including In Perfect Time (Revell, August 2014). Her novel On Distant Shores was a double finalist for the 2014 Golden Scroll Awards. Sarah lives in northern California with her husband and three children, works on-call as a hospital pharmacist, and teaches Sunday school and women’s Bible studies.

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  1. You do a masterful job of weaving your characters' secrets into your stories, Sarah. The revelations of Roger and Kay's secrets come at just the right time in their relationship and are so satisfying as a reader. I ached for both of them as I learned the pain they've been hiding deep inside, which explains why they act the way they do and why getting close to another person and becoming vulnerable is so difficult for them.

  2. Thank you, Keli! I ached for them too!


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