Secrets are an easy and effective tool to hook readers and keep them turning the page. I often use secrets in my suspense stories, yet they are equally effective in sweet romances or women’s fiction or historical romance or any of the other genres we love to read and write.
Michael Hauge, in WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL, says, “When a character, event, or situation is not explained fully at the outset or when the hero must find the answer to some questions or mystery in the course of the story, the reader will ‘stick around’ to learn the solution and satisfy his own curiosity.”
|Debby, Missy and Janet with Michael Hauge at ACFW.|
Hauge cautions, “The longer you withhold a secret from the audience, the more important it becomes, and the more satisfying it must be when it’s revealed.”
|Which one is Harlan Coben? Shhh! It's a secret.|
Remember playing Gossip when you were a kid? Someone would whisper a sentence or phrase in a friend’s ear. The “secret” would be passed from person to person until the last child revealed the relayed message that always varied from the initial “secret.” Using the universally accepted truths about rumors and the damaging effects of sharing someone else’s secret can up the conflict in any story.
In THE GENERAL’S SECRETARY, the fourth book in my Military Investigations series to be released in January 2013, the hero comes from a small town where local gossips reveal secrets about his mother’s past. Their snide remarks and pointing fingers steel his resolve to join the military and make something of himself. In that same story, a secret from the heroine’s childhood adversely impacts the way she approaches life as an adult. In both cases, the secrets from the past have bearing on the hero and heroine’s internal conflict and the external goals they are trying to achieve.
When revealed or shared, secrets can surprise the characters as well as the reader and serve as dramatic turning points in the story.
Evan Marshall, in THE MARSHALL PLAN FOR NOVEL WRITING, says, “A surprise is a major, shocking story development that throws a whole new light on the lead’s situation and makes matters worse in terms of her reaching her goal.” Marshall goes on to say the surprise can be, among other things, “a discovery your lead makes” or a “revelation of new information that is truly bad news for your lead,” or “an event that has a negative impact on your lead’s situation.” In each case, a secret can be the unexpected catalyst that brings change.
In COUNTDOWN TO DEATH, the first story in my Magnolia Medical series, each character--the hero and heroine, the hero’s aunt, the villain, and a number of the red herrings--has an important secret that must be revealed. For me, intertwining the web of secrets was a fun exercise and, I believe, upped the tension and suspense.
Revealed secrets can lead to acts of forgiveness, which Maass says are “powerfully redemptive” and “create high moments because they elevate the characters who forgive.”
Michael Hauge talks about a character’s wound being “the unhealed source of constant pain.” The wound usually happens in adolescent but affects a character through adulthood, especially if the character creates a false identity to protect himself.
The heroine in THE OFFICER’S SECRET has been wounded in her youth, but the only way Maggie Bennett can prove her sister was murdered is to reveal the secret that kept the two women estranged for years. Some things are too painful to disclose, and Maggie will do almost anything rather than divulge the truth about what happened long ago.
I asked the Seekers to share how they have used secrets in their stories.
Ruth Logan Herne says: In Winter's End, the nurse heroine realizes she knew the hero's bi-polar mother before she died. His mother actually gave the heroine a distinctive blue-stoned ring, a ring the heroine sees and recognizes in a two-decade old family picture. She's in a quandary. This woman's faith inspired Kayla's quest for faith, but now... Now she realizes that the woman's past affected three lives, three lives Kayla is coming to love. How does she keep this secret? Should she? Should she remove herself from the case, knowing that the hero and his dying father's lives were rent by the mother's desertion? Torn between ethics, morals and common sense, Kayla is forced to consult her boss and then confront her dying patient in a poignantly honest scene, a scene that keeps her in the gridlock of emotions and further invests her in this family.
Tina Radcliffe offers two examples: The secret that both the hero Will Sullivan and secondary character Rose O'Shea know throughout The Rancher's Reunion is that Will's father died from complications of Huntington's, a hereditary disease. This is the huge secret that the heroine Annie Harris doesn't learn until the very end of the book.
Oklahoma Reunion is a secret baby book. This baby is eight years old and the story deals with not only the hero Ryan Jones' reaction to discovering he has a child but how the hero and the heroine Kait Field work to regain trust in order to create a future as a family for their daughter Jenna.
Julie Lessman’s shares her inspired secret: Even though I write family-saga romance instead of suspense, I try really hard to incorporate a big surprise at the end of each of my books. BUT ... when I got to my latest release, A Heart Revealed, where the heroine is married to an abuser who is still alive back in Ireland and cannot get a divorce or an annulment, I knew I was dead in the water because the only resolution I could see was killing the husband off. Since I didn't want to resort to the obvious, I prayed one day while sitting on my lower deck during the fall season, telling God that since He is the God of creativity, could He please provide me with a surprise ending for this book? Not ten seconds passed before an idea slowly drifted into my brain like the autumn leaves drifting from the trees overhead. I remember being so shocked by it, that I sat straight up and started laughing out loud. To this day, no one has guessed the ending ahead of time, which is a total tribute to God, not to me, giving the story that extra mystery quality that I feel so enhances a book.
Pam Hillman writes: I can't think of a single story line of mine that doesn't have at least one secret. But the secret has to be something pivotal, and it's not something that the person is willing to divulge easily. Otherwise, having and keeping the secret wouldn't be that big of a deal, would it? But, on the other hand, when the secret is revealed, it does double duty if the results are just as bad as the person worried about, but another twist turns everything around.
For instance, in Stealing Jake, Livy is a former pickpocket, and she doesn't want Jake or the townspeople to know about her past. When she's recognized and her past is revealed, all her hopes and dreams for a fresh start seem lost. But the townspeople rally around her, and vouch for her integrity and what she's done for the town. In this case, the reader knows about the secret, but Jake and the townspeople don't, so the reader knows it's got to come out sometime.
In Vengeance Rider (aka Marrying Mariah), there's a secret that is not revealed until the end of the book, but I've planted hints about the major players involved in the secret so that (hopefully) the reader will say, "Aha, why didn't I see that coming."
Sandra Lee Smith says: In Price of Victory, Sterling kept the fact that he was one of the owners of the Company that sponsored his racing team from the team members. He did that so the team wouldn't feel like they had to give him preferential treatment. The fact he was an owner was an important factor in his ability to help the heroine.
Mary Connealy writes: In my Kincaid Bride's series, all three of the heroes are badly scarred, emotionally and sometimes physically from a terrible childhood accident in a cave. None of them talk about it with each other or the women who come into their lives. Keeping this inside prevents them from healing and moving past the guilt they all carry for the damage done that long ago fateful day. In each book, the moment comes when the man talks to the woman he loves about what exactly happened in that cave. This is the moment they allow themselves to fall in love.
In Calico Canyon, Grace didn't admit that she'd hidden in Daniel's wagon to keep him from possibly handing her over from her adoptive father. Her distrust of people ... and his awareness that she was hiding something ... deepened the conflict between them.
In Gingham Mountain, Hannah kept it secret that she knew Libby, the little girl Grant adopted off the orphan train. She did this because she wanted Libby to be taken in and cared for by the lady who was running the train because they didn't have enough money to buy a train ticket. Hannah's love for Libby, as her sister of the heart, drove Hannah's need to protect all of Grant's children.
Now it's your turn. Grab a cup of coffee, and let’s discuss secrets. How have you used secrets in your own stories? Share ways you plan to increase reader curiosity or anticipation by adding a secret to your current WIP. What secrets in books or movies have had a lasting impact on your life? Two drawings today. Winners' choice for one of my books.
Wishing you abundant blessings,
THE COLONEL’S DAUGHTER, the third book in Debby’s Military Investigations Series, will be out in August 2012.
Pre-Order here: Amazon.com
THE COLONEL'S DAUGHTER
A ruthless killer is targeting the families of soldiers in a U.S. Army colonel’s brigade. Special agent Jamison Steele, of the Criminal Investigation Division, vows to stop him—because this time, Jamison’s heart is involved. The colonel’s daughter, the woman who loved and left Jamison without a word, came face-to-face with the murderer. Protecting Michele Logan means constant surveillance. And solving the mystery of the serial killer’s motive requires asking Michele the questions she least wants to answer. Questions that may lead them both into a deadly trap.