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. 🙂