I know I shouldn’t harp on this one anymore, but I can’t help it. I harp. I’m a harper. The fact of the matter is that I’m currently reading a book and it’s only plot is the main characters’ desire to find out a secret (except, in the case of this book, the main characters don’t even want to find out the secret…more on that later!)
There are many problems with the secret as a plot and I like lists so I’m going to make one:
1) Books are about journeys. If they only reason for readers to turn the page is to find out the end, they might as well just read the last chapter and save themselves the 4 hours of their lives that they’re never going to get back. Ever. So if you want to have a secret in your book, you need to make the discovery of said secret an interesting journey (by the way, main character sitting on ass saying, “I wish I knew___” is not interesting!)
2) The longer something stays secret, the bigger the payoff needs to be. I read a book recently where the entire plot was finding out what happened to a friend of the main character. When the big reveal came in the end, I was very disappointed, almost to the point where I couldn’t recommend the book to friends. I’d read 200+ pages for this secret. That’s 200 pages of growing expectations. So, if you want to do this, your secret better come with fireworks and I’m talking, “Luke, I am your father” fireworks.
3) Creating realistic obstacles to secrets is a challenge. If your main character’s goal is to find out a secret, what stops them better be pretty serious. Another character saying, “I don’t feel like telling you” is not serious. Neither is the main character not thinking to ask when it’s stupidly obvious to all readers that he should. Oh, and neither is the main character not getting off his ass because he can’t be bothered to ask. These aren’t obstacles; they’re stupid and annoying main characters. You need a real obstacle which means the keeper of the secret needs a REALLY good reason for keeping the secret and the main character needs a REALLY good reason for wanting it revealed. And, if you’re really smart, these reasons should oppose each other.
4) A secret with no purpose is like a race that ends at a brick wall. You need your main character to DO SOMETHING with the secret once they get it, otherwise your story ends the second it is revealed (and yes, I mean the second and not 20 pages later). This is why secrets work well as obstacles to goals. For example, imagine you have a main character who is a cop and he needs to find a killer so he can put him in jail. In this case, there is a REALLY good reason for the killer to keep the secret and there is a REALLY good reason for the cop to want it. But more importantly, once it is revealed, the goal is not dead because the cop has to use the secret for something (which is the real goal…put killer in jail).