Secrets in Fiction

What is a Secret?

The concept of secrets in fiction fascinates me. I assume it interests other writers. Pondering how to use secrets brings up several issues. First of all, we need to understand the types of secrets and when or if to use them. Second, we have to modulate the purpose and results of the secret. Third, it is necessary to carefully consider the placement of the secret, the accompanying clues, and the resolution.

Administrative Secrets

In fiction, as in life, secrets are always deliberate on someone’s part. If the secret pertains to an administrative function—be it government, religion, or secret societies—it may involve an administrative secret, a classified document, a confidential meeting, a closed meeting, a meeting not open to the public, or other information not shared with others outside the organization. Some organizations have secret handshakes, secret passwords, or secret meeting places. Such secrets are always evident in novels that deal with espionage, detective stories, and thrillers.

This type of secret may also be used in stories about business, religion, the military, law, medicine, education, or even agriculture. The use of administrative secrets also occurs in speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy fiction where it can bleed over into the supernatural. John Le Carré’s last novel, Agent Running in the Field, deals with multiple levels of state secrets, espionage secrets, conjugal secrets, secret installations and offices, and ends with a spectacular secret escape.

Family Secrets

Family secrets on the other hand are not shared outside the family. Even within the family, they may be shared only with certain members. Family secrets are the stuff of fiction and allow for a host of storylines. Family secrets may be as simple as eavesdropping and not telling; lying or deliberately hiding information to protect or to deceive; thefts; or betrayals that involve conjugal, personal, or inheritance issues.

Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea, which is an historical novel, contains several family secrets and a surprise ending which is based on a romantic secret. A brother keeps a dead soldier’s wallet and doesn’t tell his girlfriend that he is dead until he has to marry her to be allowed passage on a ship to Chile. A woman has a seven-year affair with her husband’s friend and never tells him until they are very old. A doctor who plays chess with a politician keeps the games secret to protect his own and others’ lives.

Constructing Secrets in Writing

When constructing a novel, a novelist has to decide whether or not to make use of secrets. In writing, secrets can be a vehicle to craft the scene where the action takes place, move the plot along, or create characters. Writers must also determine which characters will be aware of the secrets, whether or how to reveal the secrets, and at what point or if to resolve the secrets.

The Irish writer, Tana French, wrote a masterful suspense novel, The Wych Elm, in which a tree in a yard of a country home holds a secret. The secret itself is hidden throughout most of the novel and when it is revealed, the exposé uncovers other types of secrets.

The entire plot of Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake, a crime fiction novel, depends on a shared and carefully crafted secret. Individual characters also have personal secrets that help to develop the subplots. It kept me guessing and trying to figure out what was really going on throughout the book.

Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted falls into the categories of domestic and friendship fiction. Freudenberger uses a minor character’s secret to drive the main plot. The author also unveils her protagonist’s thinking process about unknown interactions and secrets from the past as the main character learns different perspectives about events from those around her.

To Use or Not to Use Secrets

It is clear from my examples above that secrets fit into different genres.  As I rework my first novel, the issue of whether or not I need to integrate secrets into the plot or the lives of the characters is intriguing. I look forward to the exploration.

Writing Goals for 2020

Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

Beginning in July, I have set about a thorough re-edit, rewrite, and consolidation of my first novel. My first task was to print out the 25 existing chapters so I could sit down and read it as a “book.” I have no idea how long it will take me to complete the work  but I do know it will take at least five different edits. I feel exhilarated and energized to pull it all together. I would like to send it out to some beta readers by the end of the year.

For my second novel, I worked on research to further authenticate the setting.

Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020, by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

During the last four weeks, I have not worked on this novel because I plan to participate once more in RMFW’s NovelRama from August 14–17, 2020. My goal is to write another 25,000 words of my draft over the four days. If I can accomplish the feat, my draft will total about 60,000 words.

Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is August 7, 2020, I am posting my eighth blog of the year. Writing a blog for more than two and one-half years has been an experience in accountability to myself and to my readers—who come from almost 30 countries across the world. When I started the blog, I assumed some beginning novelists would join me in my pursuit of goals and communicate with me. Only a few have commented directly on the blog. Some writers I know personally have contacted me via email to share ideas.

Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

As Vice President of Boulder Writers Alliance this month, I took on the task of helping to institute an online newsletter. To begin the process, I chatted with a newsletter editor from another writing organization and communicated my information to the Steering Committee.

In Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group, we discussed Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted. This novel fit nicely into my blog topic for this month.

Denver Women’s Press Club is holding Sunday Salons and Thursday Meet and Greet sessions via Zoom. I logged on for Joan Jacobson’s Sunday Salon. Joan discussed her book Phantasmagorias: Colorful Colorado Characters Spark Homegrown Summer Adventures. I also logged on for Bonnie McCune and Kathleen Duhamel’s Sunday Salon on writing book reviews.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers canceled the in-person conference for fall 2020 because of the coronavirus. In an excellent troubleshooting move, RMFW joined two other groups—Pikes Peak Writers and Northern Colorado Writers—to form the Colorado Writers Collaborative. In September, in place of a conference, the three groups will host online workshops. I look forward to participating in some helpful sessions.


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