The Magic of Secrets

11 Oct

A really wise person – I unfortunately can’t remember who – once told me that secrets are at the heart of good fiction. At first, I had no idea what this was supposed to mean. But then I took a look at some of my favourite books and began to realise that the way tension was essentially developed was through the creation of a mystery – a secret – and the eventual revelation of that secret.

What’s absolutely crucial to whether or not the book works? How the author handles the timing of the pay-off, and plants clues so that the discerning reader can piece the secret together. There are a lot of different ways to do this, so I’m just going to use examples from a couple of novels I enjoyed that I think use secrets, or just simply hide information from the reader, really effectively (without spoiling the books too much!), to illustrate this.

So, take for instance Paper Towns by John Green, which is one of my all-time favourite YA novels. In this book the secret revolves around a character, Margo, who’s disappeared. The information that’s kept secret from us as an audience – where’s Waldo? I mean, Margo – is what actually generates the tension in the story. The characters attempt to discover this secret/mystery at the same time as the audience, and that’s a large part of what drives the plot. Green drops clues throughout the novel, and these clues are a perfectly placed reveal or pay off of those secrets, or mysteries, established earlier on.

Granted, Paper Towns is a mystery so it’s obviously going to revolve around some kind of secret or quest. But, I can point to another wonderful contemporary YA novel that does this (not a mystery) Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler, one of the books at the centre of the recently Wesley Scroggins book-banning debacle. The tension in Ockler’s story is driven by a secret as well. The main character, Anna had a relationship with her best friend’s brother, Matt. Except, Matt died before they could tell her best friend about this relationship. So now Anna’s stuck hanging out with her best friend, thinking about her brother, having this huge secret hanging over her.

Ockler’s reveal? Pitch perfect. The secret comes out in the climax. There’s is so much pay off here, because throughout the novel this secret has been eating away at Anna, forcing her into herself, and then bam! it’s out in the open, is having drastic consequences on the dynamic between the girls, but on the up side Anna is finally allowed to grieve.

But it’s not just YA novels that use the magic of secrets and mysteries to generate tension. Jane Austen uses them in a super-effective way in Pride and Prejudice. I think this is best illustrated (and yeah, I’m spoiling this one totally, because I’m just making the assumption that you’ve all read Pride and Prejudice or at least seen the BBC series or movie) by the situation with Wickham and Elizabeth. Wickham seems to reveal a secret – that Darcy was a horrible man, willing to completely disregard the wishes of his father – which fuels the tension for a large part of the story and results in a climactic scene where Darcy proposes, and Elizabeth reveals that she knows his ‘secret’. Then Darcy in epistolary form reveals another secret – that Wickham was a predecessor to politicians ie a really good liar – and that generates a ton of inner conflict and tension for Elizabeth. So really, Austen is brilliant as always and has layered her secrets to maximise tension.

Obviously secrets aren’t all there is to fiction, and you have to add more layers to your story, but next time you’re trying to discover what the heart of your story is (for instance, when you’re trying to come up with a good pitch or query), or  even trying to inject tension into a scene, you may want to ask yourself: What’s the secret?

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Vahini Naidoo is a recent high school graduate from Sydney, Australia. She’s the author of several YA novels, including THE GNOME IS WATCHING, which is currently on submission to publishers. Her work is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette at the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can find out more about her over at her blog

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30 Responses to “The Magic of Secrets”

  1. Kat Zhang October 11, 2010 at 8:25 AM #

    Great post, Vee! I keep meaning to read more John Green…so far I’ve only done LOOKING FOR ALASKA. But I heard most of his books are from boys’ POVs? That’ll be a nice change, lol.

    And you definitely do the mystery/secret thing very well ;P There’s a big secret in my current WIP, and I hope I can pull it off, too!

    • Vee October 11, 2010 at 8:45 AM #

      John Green’s books all male POV (and I love them all, so good!) — although the one he’s working on now is from a female POV, which is pretty cool.

      And thanks — I’m sure your WIP will work out brilliantly, since you know, you’re kind of awesome 🙂

  2. authorguy October 11, 2010 at 8:27 AM #

    Every book is at heart a mystery.

    Sometimes it helps if the author himself doesn’t really know what’s going on. I’ve written most of my stories with only the vaguest idea where they were headed, found many of my characters by just turning around, and when I got to the end it wasn’t the end I thought it was. It’s the process of discovery that matters.

    And no, I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice.

    Marc Vun Kannon
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

    • Vee October 11, 2010 at 8:51 AM #

      I agree that sometimes it can be helpful to not actually know what your secret or mystery is (I tend to discover mine in third drafts, to be honest, and mostly use this process a lot when I’m trying to write pitches). But then I also tend not to plot, just dive straight into the story, see where it goes, and work out plot structure in draft 2 — for those who plot, I assume it’s different.

      And really? That’s kind of cool in a way, like you’re untainted by Austen 🙂

  3. Rowenna October 11, 2010 at 8:35 AM #

    What a good way of putting it! Great post!

    • Vee October 11, 2010 at 8:51 AM #

      Thanks! 😀

  4. Julie Eshbaugh October 11, 2010 at 8:39 AM #

    Vee, fantastic article! I LOVED the Pride & Prejudice example, because it’s such a great illustration of layered secrets, and how great a “secret” can be as a tool to build conflict. Thanks so much for such a thought-provoking post! Now I have one more layer to add to my own work! 🙂

    • Vee October 11, 2010 at 8:55 AM #

      Thanks, Julie! 😀 And yeah, Pride and Prejudice is my go-to for a lot of things — I totally learned how to write bad boy romances from Pride and Prejudice, haha.

      • Julie Eshbaugh October 11, 2010 at 9:05 AM #

        Ahaha! It works as a handy example for just about any post about writing technique, as well. Kudos to Miss Austen!

        • Vee October 11, 2010 at 6:42 PM #

          Jane Austen is my hero, lawl 🙂

  5. Jules Wood October 11, 2010 at 9:26 AM #

    Awesome post, Vee! A very good point. You get so wrapped up in novels you love that sometimes you forget the (deceptively) simple tricks they’re using that you can utilize, too. Thanks for re-opening my eyes. 🙂

    • Vee October 11, 2010 at 6:41 PM #

      I’m glad you liked the post 😀

  6. Caitlin October 11, 2010 at 11:09 AM #

    I love that you included Paper Towns AND Pride and Prejudice in this. You are made of win. ^_^

    • Vee October 11, 2010 at 6:43 PM #

      Woohoo, Paper Towns and Pride and Prejudice –nerdfighters who love Jane Austen for the win! 😀

      • Caitlin October 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM #

        Yes indeed! 😀

  7. tymcon October 11, 2010 at 12:00 PM #

    The best example that I can think of is anythign by Brent Weeks:P
    Read the black prism. It’s good.
    (I have a head cold so i’m doign a short comment)

    • Vee October 11, 2010 at 6:44 PM #

      Eek! Hope your cold goes away.

      And thanks for recs 🙂

  8. Sammi k Walker October 11, 2010 at 1:21 PM #

    I love when I find these things in my own writing. :}

    • Vee October 11, 2010 at 6:45 PM #

      I know, it’s so exciting 🙂

  9. kaemccrae October 11, 2010 at 4:02 PM #

    This is EXACTLY what I went through last year with my epic fantasy story – which has been on the shelf, stewing, ever since.

    The story was boring. The prince KNEW what he had to do. They KNEW they had to save their world. Their only drive was that they were being relied upon – it was more of a parody than a serious story.

    And then one day, after many looonnng weeks of frustration, I though, “Oh hey. What if they DIDN’T know.”

    All of a sudden, things started coming together. So it’s not just secrets – but the power of the unknown, and that which the world has to offer the main character AND your audience in growth.

    Eee. That’s my favourite question now. What if they didn’t know.
    Always makes things more interesting.

    • tymcon October 11, 2010 at 4:36 PM #

      High five for writing epic fantasy!

      • Vee October 11, 2010 at 6:50 PM #

        I high five you both for writing epic fantasy 😀

    • Vee October 11, 2010 at 6:48 PM #

      Yes, keeping things secret from your characters and letting the audience find out with them is EPIC, too (Paper Towns is SUCH a good example of this. But as I said, it’s a mystery, so it’s kind of a given haha).

      “What if they didn’t know?” is an AWESOME question, as well.

  10. Jess October 11, 2010 at 5:36 PM #

    Perfect timing for this article, Vee! I’m rewriting my novel and it now has two major secrets and the surrounding “ripple” secrets that hide them, and I’m debating their placement. I’m coming up on the midpoint for the first one, and then the second will probably be the turning point into the final act. (Unlike you I’m a plotter. I breathe structure. I get a little antsy if my first turning point isn’t exactly where it should be. … what?)

    • Vee October 11, 2010 at 6:55 PM #

      Haha, Jess, not weird at all — I’m a structure nut, too just on my second draft. And what you’re doing with your rewrite sounds great! 😀

  11. Kate October 11, 2010 at 7:30 PM #

    Thank you for posting this! Whenever I write my novel I;m definitely keeping this in mind. :]

    • Vee October 12, 2010 at 1:48 AM #

      Awesome, glad to be useful. And thanks for stopping by 🙂

  12. Biljana October 12, 2010 at 12:20 AM #

    Great post, Vee! I absolutely LOVE imbuing my stuff with little hints and clues of what’s to come :D. It makes things so much more exciting!

    • Vee October 12, 2010 at 1:50 AM #

      Thanks, Billy! And YES — it’s also just so much fun to write, haha 😀

  13. Chele October 12, 2010 at 7:47 AM #

    You have PERFECT timing ;D

    I’ve been struggling with the outline for my new novel – I swear it was practically screaming “NO NO NOT WORKING FIX ME” but I just couldn’t figure out how. And now, ta-da! Problem solved.

    You need an award. For like, superheroine-ism. Or something. ;DD

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