Using secrets in fiction

secretThere’s a writing exercise I’ve used a few times which tends to strike fear into almost everyone in the class. I first saw it used about 20 years ago, and I admit at the time I “fudged” my contribution. What is it? It requires everyone in the class or group to write down a secret they’ve never told anyone, and put their piece of paper into a hat, which is then passed around so that everyone receives someone else’s secret, and must then write about it. It does have a “get out safely” option – you can write down an imaginary secret instead. If you stopped right now and thought about this, what would you write?

Rather than being an exercise about making you feel bad, this is intended to provide you with an idea that could lead to a powerful story, for what propels characters more than anything but a secret that must be kept at all costs, or a secret that destroys lives when revealed? The novel that always comes to mind when I think about the power of a secret is Atonement by Ian McEwan, but even the Harry Potter novels thrive on secrets and hidden information.

Recently, the Sunday Life magazine (in The Age) published a piece on secrets by Liane Moriarty. It begins:

When I was six, I had a secret. A big one. I remember the superior, impatient feeling it gave me. The way the words quivered at the back of my throat.

She writes about the thrill of knowing and not telling – it was “exhilarating, and also excruciating”. This is the thing with secrets – they have immense power, sometimes of life and death, and can lead to the most disastrous events if revealed. But one of the things Moriarty describes created an immediate response in me: NO! Not in fiction. Talking about being entrusted with a long-held secret, she says, “The words had barely left her mouth before I was dialling the number of a mutual friend. You couldn’t have paid me to keep that secret.”

But in fiction, one of the key things we strive for is tension. A secret so immediately told to another loses its power and tension, and your story would just dribble away to nothing. In fiction, the longer a secret is held, the bigger it grows and the more importance it has to the characters it affects. A great secret permeates every layer of a story, from backstory to dialogue/silence to deep emotions such as guilt, rage and revenge. If you have a secret in your hand, use it wisely in your novel – make the most of it – don’t let it out lightly!

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