Monday, May 21, 2012

The SECRET Trick

I'm not gonna lie. This writing technique isn't groundbreaking. It's something you've probably already thought about. And I'm sure I'm not the first to blog about it.

But I always love getting reminders about stuff like this. Just because I know it, doesn't mean it's always at the front of my mind. Yanno?

So. For today, here is your reminder:

Give each of your characters a secret.

Each character. Not just your main character(s), but your secondaries, too. And your tertiaries. (I totally had to look up the spelling for tertiary. I could have sworn there was a "c" in there somewhere . . . )

I try to know as many of my characters' secrets as possible before I start writing a draft. They each have one very significant one. A secret that they'd do just about anything to keep from coming to light. (Sometimes characters have more than one. That's when things get super fun.) (I'm a poet and I know it.)

Some characters' secrets become large parts of what drive my plots. Their unveilings can lead to major twists. Or small ones. Or they're not twists at all, but something else entirely. Not every secret has to be CIA spy-worthy. Sometimes the secrets never even come out--but they still definitely motivate their character's actions.

A character's secret can be deep and dark. Scary. Or it can be light, like hidden love. Or somewhere in the middle. Really, anything works. As long as the secret exists and makes a difference to the character.

I mean, think about it. We can deepen a character's development in spades just by understanding their secrets--and how they react to them.

Take . . .  Shelly, the main character in your new WIP. Or, yanno, insert the real name of a character here: ______________ :)

What's her secret? And whom would she share it with? Her best friend? (What's her best friend's secret?) Her parents? (What are their secrets?) Nobody? Someone only at the last minute and under duress?

How does her secret affect other characters in your WIP? How does it affect your plot? If it came to light, would it impact her life and the world around her? Or does she only think it would have an impact, but you the big bad author know otherwise? Will you let her secret slip out into her world? How? What about a secondary character whose secret affects your MC? What will you do with that? Or the tertiary character whose secret affects that secondary character? Or the second secondary character whose working against the first secondary character because his secret involves, or depends on, the first's secret?

I could keep asking questions like that for hours. Happily! Because each answer opens up something new. And all the sudden there's the start of this spiderwebbed plot. 

Each answer makes it that much stronger.

Okay, and maybe you're a pantser and don't think about these things ahead of time. No big. This trick still works.

Have you ever stumbled into a corner that you haven't known how to write yourself out of? Of course you have! And not because you're a pantser. I mean, I do that all the dang time, and I plot forever before I start writing. It happens to all of us.

But dude. When you do write yourself into a corner?

Give a character a secret and let it explode. Either your main character, or someone near her. The result from it being leaked?


That corner's destroyed in the rubble and you'll find a million different places you could go. Or maybe just two or three--or maybe just a single strand to pull on, but it'll be enough to move your character forward.

Or, if you want to be evil, backward. :)

And one other little trick for this technique? 

Reread this, but replace the word secret with a different noun. 

Give each character a past. A dream. A fearA weakness. A strength. An ability. A disadvantage. A weapon. A goal.  A tendency . . . 



  1. I totally agree! Secrets give characters substance, even if you never share them with the reader. They help keep us from writing hollow people.

  2. I do this for a lot of characters, but you're right, I should spread it even further into the tertiary and quaternary peeps.

  3. I've had characters with secrets before, but I've never thought of/heard of giving all your characters one...great idea!

  4. I wasn't completely on board with the secret...but then you threw me with that trick at the end. Now I love you. And am hugely impressed.

  5. Great post! I'd never actually thought of this before writing. I mean, I can think of secrets my characters have, but I never planned for them in advance. This is an awesome idea.

  6. This may be a good ol' technique, but it is one I have never thought of and could be useful across genre... in fact, I think I will try it in both memoir and poetry.

    I am so grateful for this Blogfest. Today I felt totally blah about writing but came here to see the theme and now, less than a half hour later, I have a blog post I am not embarrassed to put up! THANK YOU!

  7. Love this post, Sara. When I wrote my first draft of my WIP, my betas complained that my main character was boring... It turned out she painted in her basement in 'secret' :-) It now plays a much bigger part in my novel than I originally thought, AND it was a secret she kept... Now to get the love interest more interesting :-P Any suggestions?

  8. Great post! This is definitely the key to creating three-dimensional characters. Thanks!

  9. Love this! I'm starting to be a panster, but I always try to give my characters secrets as soon as they pop up in the story. It's amazing how much complexity that can give them, even if you never reveal what the secret is.

  10. This is fantastic, Sara! I've never officially heard about the Secret Trick, but now that I think about it, my characters all have secrets. I actually did something writing-related right, without even trying... Huh.

  11. Give each character a dream or a goal they desperately want to achieve. That's helped me to deepen my characters and make them feel like they have more dimensions to them.

    But, hey, give them anything that real people have usually does the trick, including secrets. What real person doesn't have secrets?

  12. I love this! And it's OH SO APPROPRIATE for my WIP. Thanks for the reminder!

  13. This is really interesting advice! A number of my characters have ended up having secrets I never even suspected about them when I first created them, and it made their storylines and the plot trajectories even better.

  14. Great tip! I know one of my side characters has a secret...I just can't figure out what the dang secret is. She's keeping it close, that one. ;-)


Yay! I love when you have things to add :)