How to Write Secrets and Drive up the Tension

My name is Cimizelle—

[But you all can call her Cimi.]

Ereinne!

[She hates that, you know.]

Both of you, be quiet.

I am Cimizelle. Don’t call me Cimi, because only my mother and Ereinne do that. Don’t call me Cim, either.

[Whoa, look who woke up in a bad mood?]

[Cim, stop glaring at everybody!]

Then all of you go away!

{a short time later}

Finally. I’m not introducing myself again, so you’d better remember what my name was.

I’m going to talk about secrets. Specifically, what secrets are, how they’re important, and how to use them.

Everybody has a secret, particularly fictional characters. Some secrets are big, and some secrets are small. Some characters have only one secret, and some have multiple. Some are simple, some are complex.

[Cimi is a secret, so she’s the expert on this topic.]

Ereinne!

What is a secret?

A secret is a piece of crucial, interesting, or damaging information that only one person (or a few people) know. Usually, the involved parties intend to keep it in its secretive state.

Simply, it’s a piece of information that somebody knows and nobody else does. The reason it stays a secret, or is fought to be kept a secret, is often related to why it was made a secret in the first place.

If my secret were that I was afraid of spiders, it could be a secret because I didn’t want to admit to having a weakness. Then I would want this to remain a secret for the same reason.

[Are you afraid of spiders, Cim?]

Of course not. Speaking of spiders, there’s one on your shoulder, Kalvias.

[Whoa! Wait, I don’t see a spider.]

[That is not funny, Cim!]

[You should have seen your face! That was hilarious!]

[Not funny.]

[Yes it was. Even Saelas is laughing.]

Secrets can be categorized into three types. Total secrets, reader secrets, and character secrets.

Total secrets

Only one or two people (often including the author) know this secret, and nobody else does. The reader doesn’t know it, fellow characters don’t know it, and sometimes even the protagonist doesn’t know it.

Plot twists usually fall under this category. There is foreshadowing leading up to the plot twist, but until it happens, usually only the author and maybe (but not always) one or two characters (but never the protagonist) know about it.

Reader secrets

These are the secrets that the reader is privy to, and so the information is kept secret from other characters.

[This is like when a character has a crush on another character, and the reader knows and ships it, but the other character is clueless.]

Well, I suppose. Another example would be when the reader gets a bit of information from one PoV character, and another bit from another PoV, and combined, they know something that the individual characters do not know.

Character secrets

These secrets are more rare, mostly because they’re harder to pull off. This is when a couple of characters know the secret, so it’s not a total secret, but the reader doesn’t know it.

The most common form of this secret is when several characters have a plan to do something—to get in somewhere, to get out of somewhere, etc.—but the reader doesn’t actually know what the plan is until they see it in action. Until the plan is unveiled, and as long as the reader doesn’t know, this is a character secret.

These secrets are difficult to write, mainly for two reasons. In deep PoV, it can often be jarring or awkward for the reader to know most things except for this secret. Secondly, it can be very frustrating to a reader to know that the characters know something they don’t.

The big difference between total secrets and character secrets is that with total secrets, the reader does not know there is a secret, whereas with character secrets, they are aware there is missing information, they just do not know what it is.

Why are secrets important?

First off, secrets are natural. Everybody has something they keep to themselves, whether it’s big or small. The reasonings depend on the secret—fear, embarrassment, something else.

From a writer’s (or reader’s) perspective, a character with secrets can be intriguing and raise questions. What is their secret? Why is it a secret? Does anybody else know? Will this get the protagonist into trouble? Is this secret important?

Raising questions is important (topic for another day), so secrets can be used as a tool.

Secrets also can create tension.

Example—Kalvias knows something I don’t. I know there’s a secret, and I’m hurt he doesn’t trust me. Every time we interact, I am wondering what else he isn’t telling me and if our friendship is falling apart. On his end, he’s (hopefully) guilty about keeping things from me, and sees that I am now not as trusting of him, and so there’s tension.

[I don’t like that example.]

Things to keep in mind when writing secrets

Secrets affect a lot more than just who knows the information

If someone has a secret, obviously the secret affects them. They may have to lie to keep the secret hidden, and depending on what the secret is, they may feel that they’re holding a burden.

But others are affected as well. Who is being lied to? Who suspects that there is hidden information? Who is being completely duped?

Secrets can create frustration in the reader

Frustration. It’s entirely too easy to get frustrated with secrets.

It might be fun for a reader to put together information or figure out a secret, but when other characters continue to remain oblivious, the reader can quickly become frustrated and wish to bang character’s heads together. Which isn’t always a good idea.  Or, alternatively, the reader can become frustrated because it is obvious that information is being withheld from them.

A Recap

~ A secret is hidden information.

~ There are three types of secrets. Total secrets, which is information kept secret from the reader and the main characters; reader secrets, which the reader knows/figures out, but other characters don’t know; and character secrets, which characters know and the reader does not.

~ Everyone has a secret, big or small.

~ Secrets can raise questions, create tension, or create curiosity, which is a tool that can be taken advantage of.


[I am not afraid of spiders.  I was just startled.]

[Don’t worry, Kalvias; Cimizelle will protect you from the spiders.]

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17 thoughts on “How to Write Secrets and Drive up the Tension

  1. *shivers* Brr … I hate spiders! And I’m the girl who handles frogs, ladybugs, caterpillars, etc. on a regular basis! DIE SPIDERS!!!

    Good post, by the way. I need advice on secrets … I’m so awful at them.

    Like

        • [Ah. My recommendation, then, is to not worry about the secrets in the first draft. When you get to draft two, though, figure out where your foreshadowing is and what pieces are necessary and what aren’t.]

          [Having someone else read your writing is also helpful! Morgan gets entirely too pleased when one of her beta-readers reading my story tries to guess the plot twists and is thinking along the lines that she wants them to think. Which is of course not the right direction.]

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Ooh yay! I like this post, hehe. I never knew you didn’t like being called Cim or Cimi, Cimizelle. I’m afraid I’ll still call you those, though…it’s just faster.

    Anyhow, this is a cool post! I never thought of classifying secrets like that, but I really like it. I especially love total secrets…those are my favorite. 😀

    And spiders. *shivers* I don’t like them either. (Although, I bet your face really was funny, Kalvias, and I would have probably been laughing the hardest out of everyone had I seen it. Weird/funny facial expressions always get to me…)

    Liked by 1 person

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