The Power of a Secret

I’m just reading Mary E. Pearson’s The Miles Between. It’s a fun read, less intense than Pearson’s last book, The Adoration of Jenna Fox. There’s something, though, that Pearson does in both books–beautifully.

She gives her MC a secret.

In The Adoration of Jenna Fox, the secret is a biggie. A BIGGIE. I’m only about 2/3 through The Miles Between, so I don’t know whether the secret that Des, the MC in The Miles Between, is carrying is as big in itself. I do know that the secret carries, for Des, as much weight as Jenna’s does for her. And I know that Pearson uses both secrets to carry tension through out both stories.

How to do that?

Here’s what I’m coming up with.

  • Know that secret perfectly. Know every detail, how every person involved impacted that secret and was impacted by it.
  • Don’t let your MC know the whole secret at the start. Leave a surprise for her. Otherwise, when you get to the end, the reader will get a discovery, but your MC won’t. And I’m pretty sure that will make the moment fall flat.
  • Know your MC’s understanding of that secret. If she knew about “it” when it happened, how did she sit it. As the story opens, what is her understanding of/interpretation of that secret? How many of the actual facts of that secret is she aware of. And what will her view of it be at when the story ends. (I’m guessing you could/should leave her reaction to learning the whole truth)
  • Make your hints concrete. Honestly, pet peeve here, but nothing drives me more crazy (as a reader and an editor) than vague hints about something we don’t know. That’s just being vague about vague. Find a way to slip in something solid, without giving away the secret. Just enough to make the reader say, “Ooh,” and “Hmm,” and try to add together all the little specifics you’ve given them and figure out what’s coming. And then feel deliciously happy that they can’t yet, but still know it’s coming.
  • Craft the right moments to place the hints. Yes, the hints have power of their own–they can take a happy moment and turn it dark; they can take a seemingly normal day and fill it with suspense. But you can’t just write a scene, remember that your readers need a reminder of the secret, and drop in the hint. The hint has to arise from the actions and interactions in that scene, at that moment. It has to connect with what your character is doing, saying, and thinking. If you know that it’s “time” for a hint, but the scene you’re writing doesn’t support it…rewrite the scene. My guess is you’ll give it a lot more power when you do.

To see solid examples of what I’m talking about, I really recommend reading either or both of these books. As I said, Jenna’s story is incredibly intense and Des’ has a very different pace. So I think reading both would be the way to go, see how the secret thing is handled in two very different stories. I have a secret I want to weave into my WIP, and my plan is to go back to both of these books & really take apart what Pearson is doing. (Jordan reminded me with her comment below that I wanted to ask for any other examples you’ve got for books that do the secret thing. I’d love to hear any other titles.)

Then I’ll see if I can come even close to doing it as well. 🙂


  1. jordanrosenfeld says:

    Another great example of a secret is in Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. The hints are concrete and you feel sort of like, “I should have seen that coming” at the end, but yet you didn’t.


    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks, Jordan! I meant to ask for suggestions–I’ll go back up & edit. I’ll look at this book, definitely.


  2. Stephen Pohl says:

    Movies can show the power of a secret too. This week I watch a 1971 Michael Caine movie, Get Carter, based on the book, Jack Returns Home.

    Set in England, Jack Carter, a ganster now in London, returns to his hometon of Newcastle to bury his his brother and find out how and why he was murdered, so he can take his revenge. All the hometown gansters and hangers on are in on the secret and scared to death to tell Jack the truth. So they all lie and point the finger at someone else. Jack is ruthless in his pursuit of truth and vengence and the bodies pile up rapidly. The truth will out, even if Jack has to pound it, cut it, shoot it out of them.

    “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to decieve.”



  3. trudyj65 says:

    Best example I know of is Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I don’t know if it’s so much that the main character has a secret — she does, but she doesn’t remember it — as that people around her are keeping a secret from her. As it plays out, it’s an absolute shocker (well, it was for me anyway) when the reader starts to piece it together, a little before the character does. The clues are so brilliantly sown, I had to go back and reread it immediately to see where they were and what I’d missed the first time.


    • beckylevine says:

      If you liked this, I think you’d really like Jenna. And I’m a few more pages into The Miles & it’s getting more intense, so…

      I’ll put this on my list, too. Thanks!


  4. Thanks for giving me a lot to think about! And one more reason to read Mary’s new book!

    Have a great weekend (is it getting any cooler?)


    • beckylevine says:

      I think you’ll like it, Jeannine. I’m enjoying it a lot.

      Yes, it’s cooled off some–nice and pleasant!


  5. Shevi says:

    I actually hate it when the MC has a secret. Hate it.

    This is the way I see it. When the MC has a secret, it feels like I’m playing a game with someone who is playing by a different set of rules than I am. The deck is stacked in the writer and the MC’s favor. They’re hiding their cards. They both know what cards they have, and they’re showing them to each other and laughing at me because they know something I don’t know. And I don’t know it, because they’re the ones making the rules, and their rules say I can’t know this “big secret,” which is apparently a secret only to me.

    I find this particularly annoying when the book seems to be about nothing other than the secret. It’s the sort of thing that can get me to close a book within the first few pages. The writer has to show me all of his or her cards. If not, I’m going to find another writer who will.

    I’m okay if the MC’s secret is one the MC doesn’t know, for example, if the MC is in denial. That’s okay. I get to see all the cards the MC can see, and that means the rules of the game are fair.

    The best thing to keep me hooked, though, isn’t a secret at all: it’s the need to find out how the MC will resolve his or her conflict.

    Make me invested in the MC. Make me want what the MC wants as much as the MC wants it, and make me need to find out how the MC does or doesn’t get it. That’s all a writer needs to keep me hooked.


    • beckylevine says:

      Shevi, I think I know what you mean–when the secret is just kind of a gimmick. I’m not happy with those either. In both of Mary’s books (and it’s what I’d like to achieve in mine), the secret is at the root of the MC’s conflict. They’re not going to get to resolution until the face/learn/deal with that secret. It’s very tied into the character’s arc.


  6. A terrific example of a protagonist with a secret is Renee in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The secret revealed at the end makes every scene and every utterance made by Renee much more powerful. I never once suspected she had a secret. The reader believes Renee when she tells us how she feels and why, without a hint of something much, much deeper.

    A secret is the final element in the 10 point Character profile I ask writers to fill out for both the MC and the villain (if there is one) and any significant secondary characters.

    As I say in just about every plot workshop I give, we all have secrets. Every single one of us. (For some, the deep, dark secret that has haunted for years can ultimately cause an illness. So, for gosh’s sake, tell someone and release it from your body!)


    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks, Martha. I’m digging more deeply for my MC’s secret, trying to get closer to what it is for her. Or if it’s one that she has to find out from someone else.


  7. Barrie Summy says:

    That’s it. Now, I have to read The Miles Between. I must know the secret.


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