On Secrets

I’ve read a lot of novels where the main character’s goal is to discover information or solve a secret. Maybe this means finding out who committed a crime or finding out why character A broke up with character B. While this is a great way to create a plot with a clear endpoint and an ongoing hook, there are three things you need to keep in mind when your character’s goal is solving  a secret:

1) The longer you keep something hidden, the bigger it becomes. I learned this one from Michael Hauge. If your secret is the identity of a murderer, you are probably safe here. But what if it is smaller? What if it is something like why did Bob get fired from McDonald’s? If so, what Hauge is saying is that, if you build your entire plot around finding out why he got fired, the reason better be MIND BLOWING. You can’t make a reader work 300 pages only to find out Bob spit in someone’s hamburger.

2) The thing that is stopping the main character from discovering the secret can’t be that they just haven’t asked the question. In this case, this means you need REAL obstacles to discovering the secret. In the case of the murderer, you are probably good because the murderer doesn’t want to get caught and will do anything in order to prevent it. But what if the secret is why did Bob break up with Anne? In this case, you can’t build an entire plot around Anne trying to find this out–not if there is no reason for Bob not to tell her. If you do, you will create a character who is annoying; a character who makes readers want to yell JUST ASK HIM DUMBASS.

3) The arc is over when the secret is revealed. A novel’s plot arc always ends when the main character reaches his outer goal. If the goal is the secret, this means the novel must start to wrap-up once it is discovered.

So what do you do if you want to use a secret in your plot but don’t want to end the novel at the discovery? This is where you use something I call a “baton toss”. Rather than making the goal simply discovering a secret, you make the goal something the character wants to do WITH the secret. For example, Doug wants to get Bob fired from his new job at Taco Bell. In order to do so, he needs to find out why Bob got fired from McDonald’s. Once Doug does this, he will use the information to obtain his REAL outer goal: getting Bob fired again. If this were your novel’s arc, Doug’s goal would be to discover the secret (why Bob got fired) up until about the midpoint and then it would change to using the secret to obtain his end goal (get Bob fired again).

Category: On Writing