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I’ve Got a Secret

Kath here. Please welcome back Ellen Weeren to WU today. Ellen’s first post on Writer Unboxed was called Believing We Have a Story to Tell [1].  She graduated from college with a BA in Writing, but took time off from creative pursuits when she began working full-time as mostly a technical writer. When her second child was born, Ellen became a full-time mom and put writing aside altogether. That all changed when her family unexpectedly moved to India. Ellen found her muse again and started her blog called A Reason To Write [2], which has received several international awards. Ellen is now writing her first novel, The Alligator Purse [3].

When I joined my writing group, I had never heard the specific term “story secret” and it was all the other writers seemed to talk about. Of course, I knew what they were referring to – that magical way a writer keeps a secret from the reader and sometimes from the characters in a story, revealing just enough to keep the reader half-way in the dark and half-way in the flickering light. But it seemed a daunting task to be so calculated in my own writing.

Ultimately, that first meeting turned into an “aha” moment for me as I realized that it’s not enough to simply get a story out. Writing is truly a craft that requires patience, persistence, and a few good secrets.

Nothing draws in a reader in quite like, “I know something you don’t know.”

Secrets are the reason we read. We want to be surprised by what happens next. If it’s all so predictable, we’ll put the book down and go back to our real lives.

That’s what happened when my son read Julius Caesar. Shakespeare was no doubt a master storyteller. However, in Julius Caesar, he foretold away the surprises in his story by hinting at things to come and then making them all come true. Bad things were predicted and then those bad things happened. That didn’t give my son much of a chance to imagine possibilities or get invested in the story.

Stephen King [4] used story secrets masterfully in It. The seven main characters in this story return to their hometown to fight “It” (a demon that existed when they were children and returns to kill again). But, no one is sure what “It” really is. Finally, it becomes clear that “It” is based on the individual fears of each character. King gives the readers something to figure out.

Secrets feel much more dangerous in non-fiction. Jeannette Walls [5] shares her family’s many secrets in The Glass Castle. They were dark secrets that had the power to significantly impact, or even destroy, her real-life relationships. There was a lot at stake for her personally. I recently read, however, that her telling of these deep secrets ultimately freed her. Now that her life story is so out there, she isn’t worried that someone will uncover the worst parts of her life.

But how do writers do it? How do they keep a secret?

Richard Bausch [6] piques his readers’ interests through story secrets in his own short story “The Man Who Knew Belle Star”. In the opening paragraph of the story, a man is driving and picks up a female hitchhiker who is carrying a brown paper bag. Michael Kardos [7] of the Missouri Review gives a breakdown [8] of the seven secrets Bausch sets up in the very first paragraph of the story. That’s right. Bausch leaves the reader with seven questions after just one paragraph. That paragraph also shows writers how to employ the old adage, “show, don’t tell.”

In my own work in progress, The Alligator Purse [3], the main character Katie finds a purse in a dumpster behind an upscale café when she is searching for something to eat. It turns out to be her mother’s old purse and it holds some secrets. It also holds some memories. The purse is nicely tying together the present and the past lives of Katie. Its discovery threatens to unravel the secrets that are hiding between those lives.

Books with notes stuffed inside, old trunks, coat pockets, scrapbooks, brown paper bags, and once-loved purses are wonderful places to hide secrets. The writer can hint at story secrets, tuck them away for safe keeping, and allow the characters to carry on as if the secrets don’t exist. At least for a while.

In my previous essay [1] on Writer Unboxed, I wrote about keeping a notebook so that we as writers don’t forget our flashes of brilliance when we are away from our computers. A few days ago, I was at the doctor’s office with my son and had such a flash – a piece of dialogue I didn’t want to forget.

My son asked me what I was writing down. When I told him what it was, he wanted to know what Katie was saying.

I leaned toward him and simply whispered, “It’s a secret.”

He immediately begged to know more.

What about you? What’s your secret for keeping secrets?