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Exploring the art of fiction

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Secrets in Fiction

The word “secret” comes from the Latin verb secernere; se: to set apart and cernere: to sift. The etymology of the word seems particularly appropriate for fiction: as both readers and writers, we are always sifting through a story in order to find meaning.

Much good fiction has a secret at its center. One character keeps something from another. An unreliable narrator deceives us into thinking that we should believe her. A revelation at the end of a story is a secret that’s been unseen by the reader. A protagonist is not what he appears to be. A character’s thoughts do not line up with their actions.

Secrets are a great way to keep a story moving forward, as more of the secret is revealed to the reader and, perhaps, to the character and the writer. Classic examples of stories or novels with secrets include: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; “Three People” by William Trevor (or pretty much any Trevor story); and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.

Exercise

Secrets can be an important tool for any fiction writer. Here are a few ways to include them in your fiction:

  1. Look at a story or a novel chapter that you’ve written that seems to lack energy or momentum. Think of possible ways to introduce a secret into the narrative mix. Perhaps one character doesn’t tell the other the truth about an event. Perhaps the protagonist wants another character to keep a secret. Perhaps the narrator knows something but keeps that information from the reader.
  2. Begin a new story by knowing that one character is keeping a secret from another character, but by not knowing what that secret is. As you write the story, uncover more about each character as you learn what the secret might be.
  3. What is one of your secrets? (We all have them!) Write it down. Now give this secret to a character who is unlike you in every way. How does that change the way the secret develops?
  4. Think about the difference between keeping a secret from the reader and keeping a secret from one of the characters. Write a scene where a secret is withheld from the reader; then write the same scene but this time let the reader in on the secret and keep it from one of the characters. Which scene works best for the story or the novel as a whole?

by Laura Spence-Ash