Readers love being surprised by secrets in stories, as what was hidden is revealed. Although the revelation and its lead-up may seem mysterious to readers, authors, like good magicians, should know what they are doing.
Your story’s secrets help determine its structure and its characters’ behavior. Let’s pull back the curtains to review the elements that make stories’ secrets work. Warning: real examples are included in this article; that means, spoilers to come.
What’s the big secret?
The type of secret in your story is often determined by genre. If you’re writing a murder mystery, the secret is usually the identity of the murderer, and may include how and why the murder was committed. If you’re writing a romance, usually the reveal includes some explanation of why the characters did not declare their love beforehand. But many other reveals are possible, limited only by imagination.
Here are some examples:
- The main character is different than expected. Perhaps the protagonist is a ghost; perhaps the story is being told by a chimpanzee and not a human.
- Another character has a different identity. This could be a parent or child (these relatives are often misplaced in fiction), or a secret benefactor (Great Expectations by Charles Dickens).
- A great effort was unnecessary. In The Necklace, a short story by Guy de Maupassant, a couple borrows a diamond necklace in order to look great at a party, but then lose it. They spend years working to pay for its replacement, descending into poverty, only to discover decades later that what the necklace that they lost was fake.
- In many exciting stories, often the twist near the end is what permits the heroes to succeed. Perhaps someone has a secret ability. In Harry Potter, two pieces of information come in quick succession: one requiring his death, and the second enabling his resurrection.
When do you reveal your secrets?
The timing of the big revelation depends on your plans. If you’re writing a tightly-connected series, such as The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, you may save some secrets for the next volume. Otherwise, by the end of a book you should have revealed all, although you can put background information in an Author’s Note. In Children of Tantalus, King Tantalus thinks that the falling stars mean that the Olympian gods are arriving for a banquet; in my Author’s Note I reveal that the timing coincides with the Leonids, a meteor shower that can be as stunning as fireworks.
Frequently, big secrets are revealed in a climax near the end, but this is not always the case. In romances, readers generally know which characters will get together (and if those characters don’t get together, be prepared for angry readers), but wish to discover how.
Other secrets may be revealed throughout your story, and these revelations should impact your characters. The new information may cause your characters to change their behavior, or to change how they feel about someone. Perhaps they discover that a parent is guilty of murder, or that someone they admire is an embezzler.
You can also incorporate partial reveals into your story; that is to say, the truth, nothing but the truth – but not the whole truth! A character may learn that Mr. X is planning to steal a company secret, and only discovers later that Mr. X is a double-agent.
How do you want readers to feel when they learn a secret?
Stories guide readers on emotional journeys. A story may encourage many different emotions, but when you reveal a big secret, here are three reactions that you nearly always want from your readers:
- Surprise. One emotion you nearly always want readers to feel is surprise. This is important as surprises are addictive and a large part of the reason why they pick up the books.
- Acceptance. Another reaction you want from readers is acceptance. The revelation should make sense, as the pieces of the puzzle come together.
- Satisfaction. Readers generally want to be content with what you have done; the revelation is emotionally satisfying.
You can break these rules, of course, but be prepared for some irritability (or fewer sales) if you do.
During the rest of your story, when you are doing partial reveals, or revealing lesser secrets, you will also want to provoke certain reader reactions. You may want to encourage anything from disgust to delight, but you will usually want readers to be curious, as they wonder what they’ll learn next.
Why don’t the characters, or at least the readers, realize the big secret?
Generally first-time readers of a story won’t know everything that is going to happen, and often your characters won’t either. The ignorance needs to be justified. Here are some ways to manage it:
- Readers may not know something because you are using a point of view that does not allow access to all information.
- Readers may not know something because a character is lying. Strangely enough, lying is one of those things that probably happens more often in real life than it does in fiction. In fiction, lies are often considered unfair, although this technique is nevertheless used. One version is known as the “unreliable narrator,” used to great effect, albeit controversy, by Agatha Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
- Characters may make honest mistakes. The cartoon Popeye – where he gains incredible strength by downing a can of spinach – exists only because of a typo that ascribed ten times more iron to spinach than it actually had. If you opt for something similar, you can justify it by giving a character dyslexia or a faulty keyboard.
- Ignorance is easier to establish in stories set in earlier times when we had less technology, although stories set today can be saved by hacking and battery failures and places where cameras don’t reach.
- In the series Stranger Things, partial ignorance is maintained by having characters, or groups of characters, not share information. Generally the chasm is across cohorts – the adults, the high school students, and the middle school students – they all have trouble communicating.
- Other characters may, because of conflicting goals or personalities, do things that obscure the truth.
- Sometimes the secret is so outrageous that the characters cannot believe them.
- If some characters do know, why aren’t they talking? Reasons may include shame, self-interest, or the inability to communicate.
How you hide the truth is one of the ways that makes your story stay in the minds and hearts of your readers. Also, misdirects and red herrings are great opportunities for plot twists.
How are these secrets revealed?
The reveal of secrets needs to be earned. Readers find it less convincing and much less satisfying if a character just realizes something out of the blue (even if that happens in real life). The protagonist should at least experience niggling sensations beforehand.
Sometimes arranging the big reveal is easy. For example, the hero proposes and explains that he could not before because his niece was kidnapped, or Big Bad believes he’s about to conquer everything and no longer feels the need to hide in the shadows.
But other times the reveal needs to be earned. For example:
- If a character would not talk before, why is that character talking now?
- Why is the clue noticed now, when it was ignored before? This could be as simple as a child asking why the emperor has no clothes.
- Did something else happen to alert the characters to the truth? For example, a dog could pull at a blanket and beneath it a treasure is discovered.
How many secrets can your story have?
Your story will generally have at least one big secret, and may contain others that support your big secret. But you don’t have to stop there; your story may have many.
You might want to allot at least one secret to each major character. Understanding what a character does not want others to know gives you great insight and helps ramp up the tension. What does Sally want to keep from Sue? Is it something wicked that she has done? Is it something that she is planning? Is it something that was done to her? Is she protecting someone else?
How will these secrets feel to your audience on later reads?
Many readers read books multiple times. They may not experience surprise during later perusals, but they will enjoy discovering clues they missed during their first pass through. Here are some ways to insert hints in your story:
- Words that were uttered by a character may take on a second meaning. For example, you can have fun with homophones. I remember how much I was thrilled by an episode, “Bread and Circuses,” of Star Trek: The Original Series,when the “Sun God” turned out to be the “Son God” – a reference to Jesus Christ instead of the Roman pantheon.
- Readers will notice the motives of some of the characters. Certainly some revelations will include characters who are either secretly enemies or secretly allies throughout the story, and on second perusals your readers should be able to pick up on these tendencies.
- Matters that seem trivial on a first read, such as a pearl necklace, a glass of wine, or a dog getting lost, may become important. Often these clues are hidden in description, in conversational beats, or in the speeches of long-winded characters.
These are just examples, but you may think of others. The trick is to cast them so that they seem innocuous and reasonable on the first read, and significant and ominous on the second. Your readers will feel clever when they catch them – and they’ll think you’re clever too.