You know the big secret? The one that our hero hides because he doesn’t want anyone else to know? Or the one that the heroine never talks about and is afraid someone will find out? Like, the hero used to steal cars and one time, when he was chased by the cops, he hit someone and then ran away because he was afraid of getting caught. Or the time the heroine stole something from a shop because she was poor and needed to eat, and then kept doing it because of the rush?
They’re usually BIG SECRETS. And the characters think they can NEVER TELL anyone about them because then…I don’t know, the world would explode or something. You get the idea.
Secrets are cool and neat and can drive conflict really well. And it’s tempting to keep them until the very end of the book so you can have the BIG REVEAL, where the character will finally TELL ALL and the reader will go ‘ah ha! So that was the problem all along!’.
The problem with secrets is that although they are cool and neat and drive the conflict, they can also hide the conflict as well. The true conflict. Because it’s not so much the hero’s hit and run that’s the issue as why he ran away after he hit someone. Same with the heroine and her shoplifting. Why did she need the rush? It’s what they DO in response that’s the important bit, not the secret itself.
But so often the secret becomes the whole of the story and the more interesting questions like why did the hero run or why did the heroine keept stealing, get lost under the big reveal. Sometimes it’s the secret driving the story, not the characters themselves. Which is easy to do because it’s fun to keep it from the reader. And it’s fun to keep it from the other characters. Makes creating tension really a piece of cake too because all you have to do is threaten the BIG SECRET and hey presto, instant tension.
It’s really easy for the big secret to become a crutch for conflict. If you have your characters going to extraordinary lengths to hide their secrets, if you have to manipulate the plot in order to do the same then you really have to ask yourself why. What would happen if the big secret was discovered halfway in? Would the book end? If so, then either you’re not going deep enough into the conflict, or the book itself relies totally on the big secret which can also be not so good.
I guess it depends on what type of book you’re writing, but for character driven stories I’m a big fan of getting that big secret out in the open when it’s appropriate (not manipulating plot and characters to hide it). Because when the big secret is finally out, then you can start dealing with the real meat of the conflict – why did you run away after you hit that person? What were you scared of? Why did you like the rush of shoplifting? What did it give you that the rest of your life didn’t?
My chess ms was a book with a character with a big secret. The hero did something bad in his past and he didn’t even tell me what it was until the end. So I had to go back and rewrite it so he told it earlier, beacause the bad thing he did was the symptom of a deeper issue he had. A deeper fear. Even now I’m not sure I got it out early enough – but then again, he was a reticent kind of guy and it wouldn’t have been something he would have told just anyone. I guess only time will tell with that one.
Anyway, I suppose the real thing to watch for is to make sure that when one of your characters is nursing a secret, you don’t have that as the entire conflict (unless you’re writing a murder mystery and they’re the murderer). Ask yourself why the character is keeping it a secret in the first place? Do they even care what people think of them? What would happen if everyone knew? And if the answer is ‘my book would end’ then you know you’re in trouble. 🙂
Do you have a favourite big secret book? When was it revealed? And if you say right at the end and it was still cool then I’m sorry but I’m going to have to kill you. 🙂