Friday, January 22, 2016

Best of the Archives: I've Got a Secret

Best of the Archives. First posted in 2009. Comments are closed today.

Janet here. 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 others pain. Readers of our books, being human, too, will understand a character’s need to keep a secret and sympathize. Or so we hope.

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 conflict and conflict is story—which is why we should consider including them in our books. The Substitute Bride is the most secret laden book I’ve written. Elizabeth isn’t the bride Ted ordered yet manages to marry him without revealing that truth. Ted is hiding his old life as a gambler, which is the addiction that destroyed Elizabeth’s family. Elizabeth hides the existence of a younger brother. You can imagine the conflict as these secrets emerge.   

How do we create these secrets?
Secrets should carry a wallop

Develop secrets using the characters’ back story and goals and the plot:

Secrets based on the past. Secrets or secret feelings based on a character’s back story create conflict that divides characters. In Julie’s
A Passion Denied, John Brady keeps a secret about something that occurred in his past that prevents him from loving Lizzie. In my debut 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 when the hero and heroine keep secrets or are unable to face and overcome issues from the past.

Secrets based on the present. In
Courting the Doctor’s Daughter, Luke Jacobs hides his true relationship with Mary’s foster 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. When Luke’s secret comes out, Mary feels betrayed and wants nothing to do with him.  

Secrets based on the future. In The Substitute Bride, mail-order bride Elizabeth doesn’t tell Ted of her plans to bring her younger brother to live with them. When the truth comes out, Ted is stunned. The boy’s arrival adds to their troubles. When a character hides future plans that involve another, that’s sure to add to the conflict.

Ways to use secrets in our books:

Let the reader in on the secret. Most of us are disturbed if a friend whispers to another friend in front of us. We want to know what they’re talking about and keeping from us. Or worse, we wonder if our friends are talking about us. When we let readers in on the secret while keeping the main character/s in the dark, we’re putting readers in our inner circle. Hopefully they’ll keep turning pages, wondering what will happen when the heroine or hero learns the truth.

Secrets cause conflict between the characters
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 one evening the women sit stitching in Melanie’s parlor trying to act as if all is normal when they know their men are risking their lives to take revenge for an attack on Scarlet. To add to the tension in what is a marvelous, suspenseful scene, Margaret Mitchell leaves Scarlet in the dark, fuming about her husband’s indifference to her safety, as readers hold their breath and yearn to give Scarlet a slap.

Keep the reader in the dark. Keeping the reader in the dark will increase the tension. This strategy is used all the time by suspense writers. But when the reader is in the dark, secrets add suspense to any story. The author can tease readers by hinting that a character is carrying a secret but doesn’t reveal what it is until the black moment. Waiting for the fireworks is part of the fun, but the secret should carry a wallop or readers might toss the book across the room.

The secrets can come as a huge surprise to readers. Though they should be able to look back and see the clues were there and feel the secret explains a lot.

Keep the characters and the reader in the dark. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester keeps a humdinger of a secret. Readers know something is going on in the house, even as Jane and Mr. Rochester fall in love. During the wedding ceremony the horrible truth comes out that the groom already has a wife.

Ways to up the stakes with secrets:

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

Courting Miss Adelaide, Charles’ secret is closely tied to Biblical command to forgive, the theme for the book. He believes what he’s done is unforgivable, and the truth 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.

Tie the secret to universal concerns everyone relates 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 s/he 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. For inspirational stories, it’s probably better if the shocking secret belongs to the villain or if the hero or heroine was the victim of the behavior, not the perpetrator.
The hero and heroine should earn their happy ending

Tie the secret to whether the hero and heroine get their happy ending.

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

I don’t want to leave the impression that all stories should have characters hiding something. Many wonderful books don’t contain a single secret. But when appropriate, it’s a tool we can use to add spark to our stories.

Carly and Nate in The Bounty Hunter's Redemption, Love Inspired Historical, January 2016, struggled to find their happily ever after, but  of course, as romance authors, we make sure the hero and heroines of our stories do.