Sunday, July 12, 2009


Don’t we all love a secret?

That was the basis of a TV show of the same name, an offshoot of What’s My Line? A panel—Bill Cullen, Henry Morgan, Bess Myerson and Betsy Palmer—tried to ferret out the secret a guest whispered to host Garry Moore , later Steve Allen, later still Bill Cullen. The secret was revealed on the screen for viewers at home.

From the long run of the show, I’d say people love to be in on a secret. And were hooked to see how the panel will get to the truth.

Keeping secrets is part of being human. Until we trust someone, we tend to keep things to ourselves. Especially those things that'll make us look bad or bring pain to others. Readers of our books, being human, too, will understand a character’s need to keep a secret and sympathize. Or so we hope. I’ve used secrets in all three of my sold books. In The Substitute Bride, February 2010, the hero and heroine are both hiding something that carries a wallop.

The main purposes for adding secrets to our stories:

· To increase the twists and turns.
· To raise the stakes.
· To keep readers turning pages.

Bottom line: secrets cause trouble—exactly why I include them in my books.


Secrets based on the past. Secrets or secret feelings based on a character’s back story create internal conflict between characters. In Julie’s A Passion Denied, John Brady keeps a secret of something that occurred in his past that prevents him from loving Lizzie. In Courting Miss Adelaide, Charles’s secret damages his relationship with Adelaide, with others and with God. Secrets keep characters from emotional intimacy. Love cannot bloom in the soil of distrust and self-reproach. There are ramifications when the hero and heroine keep secrets or are unable to face them that create trouble.

Secrets based on the present. These secrets provide external conflict for characters. In Courting the Doctor’s Daughter, Luke Jacobs hides his true relationship with Mary’s son. Mary suspects Luke’s hiding something, but over time, she begins to trust him. Luke’s guilt and worry about Mary’s reaction if she learns the truth are a huge external conflict that force him to keep emotional distance from Mary and impacts everyone in the book.


Let the reader in on the secret. Most of us are disturbed when we see a friend whispers to another friend in front of us. We want to know what’s they’re talking about. What we’re missing out on. Or worse, are our friends talking about us? It’s fun in our books to let the reader in on the secret while keeping the main character/s in the dark. Hopefully the reader holds her breath, wondering what will happen when the heroine learns the truth. Keeping a character in the dark can be a useful plot device. An example of this is a scene from Gone With the Wind when the women sit stitching in Melanie’s parlor one evening aware their men are risking their lives to take revenge for the attack on Scarlet, yet trying to look as if all is normal. To add to the tension in what is a marvelous, suspenseful scene, Margaret Mitchell leaves Scarlet in the dark and fuming about her husband’s indifference to her safety.

Keep the reader in the dark. Keeping the reader in the dark will increase the suspense. This ploy is used all the time by suspense writers. The author can tease the reader. In Courting Miss Adelaide, I hint that Charles carries a secret, but don’t reveal what it is until the black moment.

Or the secret can come as a huge surprise. Though the reader should be able to look back and see that the secret explains a lot. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester keeps a humdinger of a secret. Just as Jane and Mr. Rochester are about to marry, Jane learns the horrible truth that her groom has a wife.

When a character keeps other characters in the dark, they’re upping the conflict.

Waiting for the fireworks is part of the fun, but make sure the secret carries a wallop—is life altering—or the reader might toss the book across the room.


Tie the secret to the book’s premise or theme.

In Courting Miss Adelaide, Charles’ secret is closely tied to Biblical command to forgive. He believes what he’s done is unforgivable, and if the truth comes out, it will tear his relationship with Adelaide apart. So he clings to his bitterness…and his secret. Until he’s able to face his past, forgive and reveal his secret, he can’t reach the point of forgiving himself and those who have hurt him. Only then can he move on with his life.

In Courting the Doctor’s Daughter, Luke’s secret keeps him from accepting God’s purpose for his life. But to reveal his secret, he must trust others. In the past, people have let him down so he can’t trust. Lying by omission backs him into a corner that destroys the very trust he needs.

Tie the secret to universal concerns everyone can relate to:

Secret baby, betrayal, sacrifice, bad decision stories tug at our heart strings, especially for the characters who are deceived, but also for those keeping the secret. The stakes have to be high enough that readers will put themselves in the character’s shoes and understand why the character is afraid to reveal his secret.

Tie the secret to something most people CANNOT relate to:

Most of us are appalled by certain behaviors. Those behaviors might range from cannibalism or incest to abuse or neglect. It might be better if the shocking secret belongs to the villain. Or the hero or heroine was the victim of the behavior.

The secret must make the happy ending look in doubt.

After the wedding scene in Jane Eyre, I doubted Jane and Mr. Rochester would get their happy ending. It was a long time coming, but well worth the wait.

I don’t want to leave the impression that all stories should have characters hiding something. The book I’m working on now doesn’t contain a single secret. At least, so far.

Do you use secrets when you're writing your books? If so, would you care to share how you use them and the impact they have?

I brought coffee, tea and apple fritters this morning. Nothing homemade. All my recipes are secret recipes. ;-)


Debra E Marvin said...

Well now, Janet, if I told you my hero's secret . . .
(and everyone said "I'd have to kill you")

You know, I never thought so much about the power of secrets in my WIP. I just thought of them as conflict points but just calling them their rightful name gave me a boost.

And thanks for a reference to my dearest Scarlett.

Have a great week Seekers and Followers (or Seeker Groupies as I like to call them)!

Happy Monday!

Ayrian Stone said...

Dear Janet--Great blog. Who doesn't love secrets in a story? Like you said--the consequences are so multi-layered that the conflict can go deep and the hero/heroine have to sacrifice something to keep going. Whether they sacrifice the right thing (their pride or fear) is the question.

In my novel, Love that is Blind, the secrets are kept unwittingly. The reader anticipates what will happen when both are revealed. (Hopefully with baited breath!)

In the novel I'm working on now, I spun in the completely opposite direction, using brutal honesty and shocking vulnerability to create the tension between heroine and hero. That's something many of us can't relate to!

With either brutal honesty or desperate secrecy, building a logical reason and tendering reader sympathy are definitely vital, like you said. We don't want any books flying across the room, do we? :)

Thanks for the tea and fritters! I'm popping cinnamon rolls in the oven now!

And yes, I'm up typing this post at 4 in the morning because my 11-month-old had diarrea and can't get back to sleep. Ah, well. Morning, Seekers and Friends!

Janet Dean said...

Good morning, Debra! Please keep your hero's secret to yourself. I like living. LOL Have you ever written a secret-less story?

I'd say few readers can be indifferent to Scarlet. I happen to love her like you and Julie.


Janet Dean said...

Good morning, Ayrian! Sorry your little one is sick and has you up in the night. Hope s/he's better. You're a doll to make cinnamon rolls for Seekerville.

Your comments regarding secrets are better than my post! Thanks!!!
Care to delve into how your characters in Love that is Blind keep secrets unwittingly?

The book I'm working on is exactly as you say--a story with brutal honesty and vulnerability between the hero and heroine. Makes for great conflict.


Glynna Kaye said...

Excellent post, Janet! I've long heard that a writer should give every character in a story a secret, even secondary characters if your WIP includes subplots.

Julie Lessman said...

Oh, Janet, what a WONDERFUL blog this morning ... you had me at Gone With the Wind. Uh, actually you had me at "secret," because I am, like every other reader, SUCH a sucker for them!!

My parents (and I) watched "Ive Got a Secret" all the time, so I love the tie in with that -- very clever!

I like to incorporate secrets in every book as well because so often romance novels don't have them, and I think they really add another dimension to the story. What's so funny about my "secrets" in The Daughters of Boston series is that most of them were "secrets" to me too until they appeared on the page!! Ah, the secret life of a seat-of-the-pants writer ... :)


Janet Dean said...

Hi Glynna. I'd never heard that rule. Now I'm worried about my secret-less wip. The story has a villain plotting mayhem so there's secrets of sorts. Hmm. Maybe I'd better add a secret.


Janet Dean said...

I knew you'd love the GWTW reference, Julie. :-)

I love that your characters whisper their secrets into your ear and surprise you. As a plotter, I decide what secrets mine are carrying. Poor things have no choice. Though occasionally they rebell and set me straight. :-)


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Apple fritters.

Who makes homemade apple fritters, Janet???? Not even me if I can find them at an apple stand in mid-October, fresh from the oil...

Might as well slather the extra poundage right on. Yum.

Like Deb, I haven't thought about them as secrets, but you're right Janet. Secrets can up the pressure of plot points to explosive status.

Keeping them, telling them. Love this take on it and how well you've used them in your books. Great examples.

And the fritters.

More coffee, please.



Erica Vetsch said...

Good morning, Janet.

I LOVE secrets in novels. In The Marriage Masquerade (January 2010) the hero and heroine each have a secret that is both keeping them apart and the key to getting them together.

Melanie Dickerson said...

This is a great subject and a great post, Janet. I used a huge secret, actually two, in my medieval, The Woodcutter's Daughter. The reader will guess the biggest secret at some point, because I drop a lot of hints and clues, but the main characters don't know the secret until the very end. Thanks for reminding me how much fun that was! It is a great way to up the suspense, and I'm not naturally that good at suspense.

Now that I think about it, all my medievals make use of a secret, even the one I haven't written yet.

Mary Connealy said...

Oh, yeah, secrets in books. They can be the root of fantastic conflict.

I enjoyed all the fuss you all made of me over the weekend 'cuz of the Christy Awards. Thank you. Seekers and this Seekerville community is the BEST.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi Janet, You caught my attention with the title. And here I was reading with a suspenseful heart waiting for you to tell us your secret. LOL. See how that works?

But you're right. Secrets do add emotional tugs. I loved how you worked the secrets in Courting The Doctor's Daughter. Some of the secret we knew right away, but it was layered with deeper implications that you teased us with throughout.

Thanks for the coffee and fritters and Ayrian, when are those cinnamon rolls going to be done? I can smell the cinnamon from here.

Janet Dean said...

Good morning, Ruthy. I'd never make homemade fritters. I'm bringing a store bought breakfast so I can tease about my secret recipes. :-) I've never created a recipe in my life. Take that back. When I was fifteen I made dish with mixed vegetables, tomato soup and hot dogs that I served over rice. Bet you're all dying to try it. LOL

So Ruthy, do you tell your characters' secrets or keep the reader guessing?


Janet Dean said...

Erica, wow that's using secrets in a huge way! Marriage Masquerade sounds fascinating! I've got to get the book.


Janet Dean said...

Melanie, I can almost hear the explosion at the end of Woodcutter's Daughter when you reveal the secret to your h/h. :-) One day that book will be in print and I'll get to read all of it, not just the first chapter.


Janet Dean said...

Mary, we Seekers were so excited and proud of you!!!!! Who in writing hasn't heard of the prestigious Christy Award?

I'm racing around like a maniac, trying to pack and tie up loose ends before I leave for RWA. Any of you out there going?


Janet Dean said...

Thanks Sandra, for your kind words about Courting the Doctor's Daughter.

Guess I could tell a secret...if I had any. I'm such an blabbermouth. Plus I've lived a dull life. LOL Trust me, I'm not complaining.


Myra Johnson said...

An important topic, Janet! I think secrets in fiction are essential, even if they're not huge secrets. If we tell the readers everything up front, what's their motivation to read on?

In my first Heartsong Presents novel, Autumn Rains, both the hero and the heroine are keeping something from each other--facts they're afraid would cause the other person to pull away. The heroine also struggles with suppressed memories after a trauma, so those details are purposely kept from the reader until the heroine is able to recall them.

It can take some effort and planning to make sure the story keeps pulling the reader forward, increasing curiosity by doling out tidbits or clues until the Big Reveal. But it's worth it!

Tina Pinson said...


I agree totally, keep secrets. Funny thing is, I've had people tell me that I should let them know more about things that are part of the secret.

Like a background character who is moves through the house like a ghost. But someone says tell me his name, so I can understand him better.

I had to laugh because that character wasn't going to come into the the light as it were until a few chapters further.

Oh well, you can't win em all.

Thanks for the post

Janet Dean said...

Great points, Myra! Characters go to great lengths to keep their secrets for fear it'll cause the other person to pull away when keeping the secret actually makes things far worse. Fun stuff!

I've read wonderful books without secrets. So it can be done. Though I can't think of a single title right now. LOL


Janet Dean said...

Hi Tina. We can't please everyone. A tough truth for writers. We have to do what fits the story or us.

Though it's fun to reveal secrets too. I love Liz Curtis Higg's The Bookends. The hero and heroine discover they're two dogs fighting over the same bone. Wouldn't be fun if the characters and readers weren't in on the trouble.


Tina Pinson said...

Though it's fun to reveal secrets too. I love Liz Curtis Higg's The Bookends. The hero and heroine discover they're two dogs fighting over the same bone. Wouldn't be fun if the characters and readers weren't in on the trouble.

So true, Janet.

Secrets define the story in different ways.

You and I could write the same story, the same formula, (I'm supposing here.) and the little nuances and secrets we add that define who we are as writer's give it it's changing storyline.
Writer's do that everyday.

Maybe it's just what people want to read and what they think they should know.

You know you shouldn't read a mystery if you can't stand secrets.

Ayrian Stone said...

Dear Janet, the first unwitting secret in Love that is Blind regards the fact that the hero, Rye, participated in a racist fire that took the heroine's sight. He also rescued her and both of them were burned by her cross-shaped necklace. Of course they don't discover this until he sees her burn (usually hidden).

The second secret is that he works for her uncle, Caleb, who is determined to keep them apart because of Rye's immoral past. So when Rye first meets Cora, he doesn't discover her name. Their relationship develops, and of course, at the pivotal moment, Caleb realizes they've been together. Of course sparks fly!

Thanks so much for your kind comments. I loved your blogs. You always put information in such logical order that I can mull over the hows and whys, applying them with better clarity. Thank you!

And my son has a fever, but he's sleeping now thanks to Tylenol. Thanks for asking!

Janet Dean said...

Tina, you make an excellent point. There's only so many plots but no two writers would write the story the same way. Thank goodness! :-)

I like secrets but I'll probably never write suspense. Planting all those clues and red herrings boggles my mind.


Janet Dean said...

Ayrian, your story fascinates me. The idea to "brand" Rye and Cora with her cross necklace is pure genius!

Thank you for your encouragement regarding my posts. I question how I dare speak on craft when there's so much I don't know. Worse, I may know something but that doesn't mean I'll apply it to my writing. No one said this would be easy. :-)

It's good to hear your little guy is sleeping...the best medicine. Hope you can catch a nap too.


Pepper Basham said...

Great post, Janet. I'm coming in a bit late, but better late than too early that people see you without your makeup on ;-)
Now my mind is whirling with possible secrets and I had to examine myself after reading your post and figure out what are daily secrets we keep...just because. I don't know if any of you are like me, but there's a chocolate stash in my house that precious ;-)
Ayrian, your book does sound great, full of secrets and suprises. What fun! My WIP has a hero with a BIG secret and a heroine who is brutally honest and expects others to be the same.

Tina M. Russo said...

This is splendid, Janet. Yeah, I agree with Debra. I cannot tell my heroes secret.

Do you think both the hero and heroine have to have secrets or just one?

Janet Dean said...

Hi Pepper! Seeing me without my makeup isn't pretty if the shocked expression on a neighbor's face is any indication. I've learned not to answer the door. :-)

I don't have to hide the chocolate these days. That made me think of one of my little secrets. A friend loved to bake and would bring us an occasional treat for our dinner. Four pieces. Four in our family. I decided to eat my piece early. Next thing I knew, I'd eaten two. Well, that would never do. So I ate them all.


Pepper Basham said...

I'm with you...the best thing to do is get rid of the evidence ;-) I don't know that current secrets, such as hiding chocolate is enough to build a premise on, do you? ;-) Maybe if there is a priceless jewel handed down for centuries hidden inside one of the chocolates or something...
Ooo, gotta go write, or eat chocolate...maybe both ;-)

Janet Dean said...

Hi there, Tina. I don't have secrets rules. Buy only one character has a secret in Courting Miss Adelaide and in Courting the Doctor's Daughter. Both the h/h hide secrets in The Substitute Bride. The hero hangs onto his right until the end of the book.

How do you like to use secrets, Tina?


Janet Dean said...

You're so right, Pepper. Eating my family's dessert isn't fodder for books. Never found a jewel in anything I've eaten. Did find a tooth once. Mine.