Generate Nerve-Shredding Story Tension—Power of the Secret-Keeper

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 9.47.12 AM

Image via the award-winning show “House.”

It’s tempting for us to create “perfect” protagonists and “pure evil” antagonists, but that’s the stuff of cartoons, not great fiction. Every strength has an array of corresponding weaknesses, and when we understand these soft spots, generating conflict becomes easier. Understanding character arc becomes simpler. Plotting will fall into place with far less effort.

My POV? All memorable stories are character-driven. Plot merely serves to change characters from a lowly protagonist into a hero….kicking and screaming along the way.

One element that is critical to understand is this:

Everyone has Secrets

To quote Dr. Gregory House, Everybody lies.

All good stories hinge on secrets.

I have bodies under my porch.

Okay, not all secrets in our fiction need to be THIS huge.

Secret #1—“Real” Self Versus Authentic Self

We all have a face we show to the world, what we want others to see. If this weren’t true then my author picture would have me wearing a Star Wars t-shirt, yoga pants and a scrunchee, not a beautifully lighted photograph taken by a pro.

We all have faces we show to certain people, roles we play. We are one person in the workplace, another with family, another with friends and another with strangers. This isn’t us being deceptive in a bad way, it’s self-protection and it’s us upholding societal norms. This is why when Grandma starts discussing her bathroom routine, we cringe and yell, “Grandma! TMI! STOP!”

No one wants to be trapped in a long line at a grocery store with the stranger telling us about her nasty divorce. Yet, if we had a sibling who was suffering, we’d be wounded if she didn’t tell us her marriage was falling apart.

Yet, people keep secrets. Some more than others.

In fact, if we look at The Joy Luck Club the entire book hinges on the fact that the mothers are trying to break the curses of the past by merely changing geography. Yet, as their daughters grow into women, they see the faces of the same demons wreaking havoc in their daughters’ lives…even though they are thousands of miles away from the past (China).

How could she just LEAVE those babies?

How could she just LEAVE those babies?
Image via IMDB “The Joy Luck Club”

The mothers have to reveal their sins, but this will cost them the “perfect version of themselves” they’ve sold the world and their daughters (and frankly, themselves).

The daughters look at their mothers as being different from them. Their mothers are perfect, put-together, and guiltless. It’s this misperception that keeps a wall between them. This wall can only come down if the external facades (the secrets) are exposed.

Secret #2—False Face

Characters who seem strong, can, in fact, be scared half to death. Characters who seem to be so caring, can in fact be acting out of guilt, not genuine concern for others. We all have those fatal weaknesses, and most of us don’t volunteer these blemishes to the world.

The woman whose house looks perfect can be hiding a month’s worth of laundry behind the Martha Stewart shower curtains. Go to her house and watch her squirm if you want to hang your coat in her front closet. She wants others to think she has her act together, but if anyone opens that coat closet door, the pile of junk will fall out…and her skeletons will be on public display.

Anyone walking toward her closets or asking to take a shower makes her uncomfortable because this threatens her false face.

Watch any episode of House and most of the team’s investigations are hindered because patients don’t want to reveal they are not ill and really want attention, use drugs, are bulimic, had an affair, are growing marijuana in their attics, etc.

Secret #3—False Guilt

Characters can be driven to right a wrong they aren’t even responsible for. In Winter’s Bone Ree Dolly is driven to find her father before the bail bondsman takes the family land and renders all of them homeless.

Ree is old enough to join the Army and walk away from the nightmare, but she doesn’t. She feels a need to take care of the family and right a wrong she didn’t commit. She has to dig in and dismantle the family secrets (the crime ring entrenched in her bloodline) to uncover the real secret—What happened to her father?

She has to keep the family secret (otherwise she could just go to the cops) to uncover the greater, and more important secret. She keeps the secret partly out of self-preservation, but also out of guilt and shame.

Seeking the truth is painful...

Seeking the truth is painful…
Image via “Winter’s Bone”

In the first novel of the trilogy I am writing, my protagonist takes the fall for a massive Enron-like scam. She had nothing to do with the theft of a half a billion dollars and the countless people defrauded into destitution. Yet, she feels false guilt. She feels responsible even though she isn’t.

This directs her actions. It makes her fail to trust who she should because she’s been had before. When she uncovers a horrific and embarrassing truth about someone she trusts, she withholds the information (out of shame for the other person) and it nearly gets her killed.

This embarrassing secret is the key to unlocking the truth, yet she hides it because of shame. Shame for the other person and shame that this information reveals her deepest weakness…she is naive and has been (yet again) fooled.

Be a GOOD Secret-Keeper

This is one of the reasons I HATE flashbacks. Oh, but people want to know WHY my character is this way or does thus-and-such.

Here’s the thing, The Spawn wants cookie sprinkles for breakfast. Just because he WANTS something, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for him. Don’t tell us WHY. Reveal pieces slowly, but once secrets are out? Tension dissipates. Tension is key to maintaining story momentum. We WANT to know WHY, but it might not be good for us.

The Force was more interesting before it was EXPLAINED.

Everybody LIES

They can be small lies, “No, I wasn’t crying. Allergies.” Lies of omission. White lies. They can even be BIG lies, “I have no idea what happened to your father. I was playing poker with Jeb.” Fiction is one of the few places that LIES ARE GOOD. LIES ARE GOLD.

Fiction is like dating. If we tell our date our entire life story on Date #1? Mystery lost and good luck with Date #2.

When it comes to your characters, make them lie (even if it’s only to themselves). Make them hide who they are. They need to slowly reveal the true self, and they will do everything to defend who they believe they are.

Remember the inciting incident creates a personal extinction. The protagonist will want to return to the old way, even though it isn’t good for them.

Resist the urge to explain. 

Feel free to write backstory/secrets out for your benefit…but then HIDE those babies from the reader. BE A SECRET-KEEPER. Secrets rock. Secrets make FABULOUS fiction.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some great works of fiction that show a myriad of lies from small to catastrophic? Can you think of what your character’s “false face” is? What is the lie that defines him or her? What is the self-delusion? What is the weakness that they dare not show (but by not showing it, is ultimately inhibiting growth)?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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  1. I am still learning this, Kristen! Maybe it’s from my former professor days (of course, explaining everything isn’t good for students, either – some things are better learned by discovery). Just ripped through a draft riddled with the stuff. Sigh. It could be worse; I could have been the guy who gave Jedis midi-chlorians, LOL. 😉

  2. I like flashbacks if they pull me into them enough like they are their own story. Plus they can also lie 😀 What I’ve found is writing backstory and flashbacks or either or both and then cut cut cut cut until it’s little slivers if you must have them 😀

    What happens more times than not is it’s used just to explain away their personality and that’s SNORE and stops the story. But if you make their past self struggle in its own version of events just as much as current then it’s better.

    Also the reader is a bit more forgiving of past main vs current main so you could make them a not so perfect character in the past too so you can really push it.

  3. I find that the best way to keep secrets is to keep my characters in the dark about what’s going on in their world. 😉
    And yes, the “midichlorian count/symbiotic microorganisms” explanation DEVALUED The Force, demoting it from the mystical to dry science. A worse move than even Jar Jar Binks, really… 👿

      • Lorraine Roe on September 23, 2014 at 9:50 am
      • Reply

      Excellent point. Over explaining is everywhere these days.

  4. Thank you, I’ve been dealing with these exact themes in my latest work in progress and this is a useful perspective. I’ve got my male protagonist hiding his curse from the world and the female protagonist, who is definitely concealing her own motives and secrets much as he is. It’s making for some good integration and I hope to keep revealing the truths little by little for a good pay off in the end.

  5. Playing with back story can go too far. I’m reading the final book of the Broken Empire fantasy trilogy by Mark Lawrence. In the first book, he tells the story in a relatively straightforward way. But in the second book, the main character–Jorg–carries a box around with some of his memories in it. Most of these memories are tactical plans he’s made because he has a dream-witch stalking him.

    I don’t have a problem with that. What bothers me is there’s a four year gap between the two books and the author tells us the important events of those four years by alternating back and forth between the present storyline and what happened then. Book three is shaping up to be worse as there’s a five year gap between books, so he flashes back to then and even earlier. If I hadn’t already invested time in the first two and want to know how things turn out I doubt I’d finish book three.

    Your post has given me an idea of how to rework the prequel to my own Rural Empires crime fiction series in which an ordinary guy gets involved in the drug trade. I’ve wrestled with how to get him deep enough he can’t get out and do it in a believable way. Right now he’s just too distracted by his daughter’s medical problems, but I think I’ll go back through and have him lie to himself about what he’s seeing around him.

    You never know where you’ll find inspiration. Thanks ?

  6. I’m a huge explainer, probably because I like things to be right (and people’s imaginations can sometimes be so WRONG). When I went to a young writer’s conference in high school, the author in charge of my group pointed that out to me, and I’ve worked on it ever since. It’s a battle… a bloody one. I like and support your suggestion of writing backstories and know-hows for our benefit only. I do that and it’s helped me A LOT. I have pages of notes.

    Definitely agree with the Force bit. I ignore their explanation for the benefit of my imaginative interest.

  7. Secrets and lies are gold. Love this advice. Keep the tension building. Thanks again, Kristen. You are my daily break while writing and you always post the right stuff at the right time. I’m starting to feel inclined to thank you in my books and add you right in there next to my mother.

    • R. A. Meenan on September 22, 2014 at 10:54 am
    • Reply

    But… but I like flashbacks. Though short flashbacks. Mine tend to be a page or less and they don’t happen often. Flashbacks can be good, if used correctly.

    But yeah, people, LIE. Honestly, some of my favorite lies are the lies characters tell themselves. My main characters both have lies like that. XD It’s fun to work with.

  8. I’m currently writing a YA series and didn’t intentionally set the lying up but really every teenager has their mask and then their inner world of soul darkening angst LOL So yeah I did this without thinking about it! I have the smarticles.

  9. This had some very helpful stuff; it helped me identify that my main character will definitely be struggling with false guilt. I’ve used a short flashback once so far, but I tried to have it function for flavor, and only to hint more at the subject’s past rather than reveal.

  10. I’m currently writing a flashback – but its for my own benefit. I’m hoping that if I know everything I can work out what is important to trickle through to the reader and character. Then I can scrap the rest. At least, that’s the plan…

  11. This came at a wonderful time. I am just beginning a new novel and couldn’t decide if I should tell my character’s secret early on or let the reader guess. Guess it is! Thank you for another helpful and thoughtful post!

    • annerallen on September 22, 2014 at 12:24 pm
    • Reply

    Great one, Kristen! I’m sending over some friends who are having trouble with the idea of “conflict” in story. This is a great way to show that conflict doesn’t have to mean violence. It can be as simple as Lucy not telling Desi she’s taken a job selling Vegemeatavitamin.

    1. Exactly 😀

  12. Thank you for sharing the way you see the world and writing! It helps, and I appreciate it, having difficulty seeing the world and writing about it the way they tell me I “should”.
    So I wrote about this blog post and why it helped me see plot as something I might be able to “do”.

  13. I think a classic example of this is “The Great Gatsby.” Takes forever to know who Gatsby actually is, not to mention the other characters. I especially love when each character has their own perspective of a situation because they’re lying to themselves as well. Makes for even more suspense for the reader.

  14. Love this advice! I’m currently planning my story for NaNoWriMo. The thought of possibly HAVING to write a backstory terrified me! Knowing that it isn’t a necessary plot point, I am breathing a big sigh of relief! Thanks!

  15. Thanks for the article. Case well made. However, I actually beg to differ. There is another kind of fiction, the kind where the reader identifies with the characters. Different strokes for different… readers, I suppose.

    I happen to love fiction where I can really identify with the protagonists. I like first person. I LOVE first person when done well. And part of the ten commandments of writing first person is “Thou shalt not have your narrator keep petty, contrived secrets from the reader just to try to make some fake suspense.” It may make a little suspense but it makes a lot of irritation and pulls the reader out of the story and dissociates from your character. Yes, keep secrets, but if you’re writing first person or even close third, you had better be keeping them from your characters too.

    That includes the flashbacks containing the “why this character acts this way” stuff. Flashbacks done badly are annoying too, yes. But contrived secrets are just as annoying. The law about flashbacks should say something about how you can’t include a memory until the character would legitimately be thinking about it. You can’t have your character think about their troubled childhood at the end of a good day of work while walking home, even if you do want the reader to know in advance why they are going to have a trauma trigger when they see their neighbor yell at his kid. If you really want the reader to know in advance, you have to put the character in a situation where they will legitimately remember their childhood. Otherwise – and preferably – have the flashback be part of the trauma trigger.

    This isn’t disagreeing with everything in the post. Just a different perspective on the secrets obsession.

    1. But a secret that’s contrived is just bad writing. My protag has a secret. She grew up trailer trash and is afraid her education won’t be enough to escape ending up like her family. In the corporate world, she doesn’t volunteer she came from the Jerry Springer show, Season 27…but it deeply affects her. She isn’t even aware of how this identity crisis/fear directs her decisions until the plot problem forces them to the surface. And my work is first person. All of us have secrets (or denial) or shrinks would be extinct 😉 .

      And those secrets/denial are part of what make us connect to characters. We can’t emotionally connect to people with no baggage or unresolved issues. We read fiction because characters are often dealing with the same demons, only they show us through action a way out.

  16. I have been struggling with how much to reveal and when of my character’s issues. I also struggle with the bad guys. This will help. Thank you.

  17. Reblogged this on Kentucky Mountain Girl News and commented:
    KMGN: I haven’t thought about some the things this article brings up. It is worth a good read.

    • Stella on September 22, 2014 at 3:30 pm
    • Reply

    Love this post! I just saw the movie The Maze Runner, and pretty much the whole movie is one big secret being kept from the protagonist. I was completely sucked in. In Game of Thrones, there are more secrets and lies than bodies being killed off, lol. There’s something addictive about watching good secrets and lies in action.

    1. Stella, two more good tv shows for lies and secrets are Revenge and Scandal. I can’t wait to get those back in season!

  18. Like “everybody lies.” Soap operas would have no problems if everyone told the truth…

  19. I am currently working on my first story. It is not a novel or memoir, it is simply a children’s fairy story based on inspiration I received from watching my little grand daughter. In “Samantha and The Deep Dark Woods”, the little girl claims to be afraid of the woods because she believes monsters live there. The truth is, she is afraid of the dark. I have plans for a second children’s story but haven’t got it fleshed out yet. I do plan to move into others areas of writing soon. I will add your link to my blog at ! Thanks!

    1. Thank you!

  20. AWESOME post! 😀

    So, if were talking about book math (I hate math but this kinda math is different).

    The Character Wound + Secret and/or Truth They Cannot Face + Changing Force/Obstacles = CHARACTER ARC (Plot)

  21. Amazing post! Not just because I love House but also because I am currently working on the first draft of my first novel and hinging it all on tiny secrets (like white lies) to global lies (like government cover-ups) and have been debating on the use of flashbacks. I think flashbacks in the form of nightmares can increase suspense if they are cryptic but subtle, don’t you? Very glad I found this blog!

    • johnfindley on September 23, 2014 at 1:55 am
    • Reply

    A few words taken from my book, “Recollections of my life”. I had a bit of fun with this the chapter; it was called “Secrets and Lies”. I found when I looked back through my life I could think of many half-truths and downright lies.
    Yes I have had a secret for years I have never discussed my secret with anyone; I have always kept it close. I think about my secret from time to time, and the opportunity to talk about it is never taken up by me. My secret may stay with me for ever. Not that I have needed to lie about it, I just don’t mention it when talking to my friends. I will write more about this later in my story.
    But in the past I have had many secrets and have lied to others to cover them up.
    “John, have you been using my hammer and my saw?” My Grandpa said, looking straight at me. I had to think fast, I was 10 years old and had many times taken my Grandpa’s tools around the back of the shed to build something and was very careful to put them back. Even wipe the dirt off them, hang them up on the correct nail on the wall of the shed. I was nearly certain he had not worked out that I had used them. But my sister knew I would use the tools, and then I remembered that she had been banging away at her dolls pram as the wheel had come off.
    “I think Faye used them to fix her doll’s pram?” I answered; Grandpa had a soft spot for my younger sister I was all right this time. But I could see in his face that he knew that I was using his tools, nothing more was said but I knew I must be careful because my Grandpa was hard to fool.

  22. Reblogged this on A.J. Sendall and commented:
    Thanks for another great post, Kristin.
    The subject of deceit and self-deceit, was an important element in my novel ‘Heather’. Lies are probably the cause of more tension than anything else, both internal and inter-personal.
    I’ll allow my MCs to explain further.

    “On days like this I wish none of it existed. That we could do this without fear of being seen together. That I would not have to answer the phone when Mitchell calls. Since I stopped working, I’ve felt even more vulnerable in a way. It is hard to explain, but that other life, that role as an escort was in an odd way … sort of protective. Nobody could ever see the real me. I was always hidden beneath the armour. But now I feel kind of exposed, naked, if that makes sense.”
    “I think I understand.” He paused as a waitress brought their food and then ate a couple of chips dipped in mayonnaise. “Allowing others to see who we really are inside can be very confronting, almost as confronting as allowing ourselves to see, and admit ownership of that inner-self which we would sooner leave covered with armour and lies.”
    “I didn’t say anything about lies.”
    “You didn’t have to.”
    They sat and ate in silence for a while, and then Sam said, “I’ve had to tell a lot of lies lately. The worrying thing is, the more I do it, the easier it becomes, until I can barely recognise truth from lies myself.”
    Heather laid her fork down, touched her mouth with a napkin, “Do you lie to me?”
    “On occasion,” he paused and stuck a piece of fish with his fork, “but it’s more like telling selective truths.”
    “You mean lies.”
    “We all lie. It’s just a matter of why and who to. We lie to save face, to avoid trouble, to protect at times as well. It’s all a matter of degrees.”
    “That sounds like spy-speak for, yes. Pass the mayo while I think about it.”

  23. From some of the comments, I’m feeling blessed I never saw the prequel trilogy to Star Wars. That said, this is Tweeted, Pinned and printed off to share with my writing group. I NEEDED to read this! I’ve just started taking baby steps on writing a novel, and this helps immensely. I’m only 5,000 words in, but I realize I was explaining far too much, far too early. I’m considering cheating slightly on NaNoWriMo and using the month to finish it… I know, I know, I’m supposed to start with nothing written. We shall see.

  24. I’m fairly sure I have made the reveal of a few key elements too soon in my story!

    But I’m drafting so I’m gonna force myself to ignore my mess ups until revision and editing time.

    Fantastic post!!

  25. I need to brainstorm a good secret for the WIP I’m having trouble with.

    • Barbara Renner on September 23, 2014 at 11:22 am
    • Reply

    Kristen, I love all your blogs and am saving them for reference. I need to quit my volunteer non-profit board positions and concentrate on my novel I started last year (reference your last post about quitting). My novel is part fiction part non-fiction about my birth mother (whom I never met, but have heard stories) and how she had an influence on my personality. We both have secrets, and it will be difficult to write because then everyone will know my secret. I’m still working on plot. I may be investing in some of your services once I quit my volunteering obligations.

  26. Good insight, I never thought that lies built tension but they do! I tend to just keep my characters oblivious or In the dark about what’s going on

  27. Another great post. Lies keep things interesting, but also, they keep things real. Lies don’t have to equal a bad character. Humans lie, for all the reasons you explained, and I think it fleshes out characters. Great points.

  28. This was very helpful to me. I am truly an honest person, to a fault. I think I probably told my life story on all my date #1s and that explains a lot. Thanks for helping me find my character’s lies. Really, really great.

  29. Wow, I’m a big fan of Kristen and this blog proves why. My 1st book ‘The Ugly Side of Sex’ was based on half truths and full lies; and although Kristen hates when a story flashback that’s where I pulled the covers of truth back, cryptically revealing just who the main antagonist really was. Kristen was dead on point when she wrote that once the lie is revealed, the cat is out of the bag, and the wind is no longer blowing the sails. So to offset this I made sure the momentum leading to the truth revealing moment always gave credibility to the lie. I had the oddest email at 2 in the morning wanting to know exactly who ‘Bonz’ (the antagonist) really was. My memory escapes me now to which book I read of Robert Ludlum’s, but in it he wrote that lies are most believable when they are intertwined with the truth. And to this day I use that formula when I write. Kudos to Kristen on another great blog…. Oh and before I go, the craziest thing about my book ‘The Ugly Side of Sex’ was it wasn’t the antagonist lying to the main character; it was the main character believing a lie so long it became his truth.

    1. Thanks for mentioning that writer (Robert Ludlum) I have been trying to figure out his name so I could check out if he had any audiobooks I could listen to, on Youtube. 😀

      Your books sounds intriguing! I’m working on a story about a woman who ends up going to jail for killing a guy she moved in with, and then who tried slapping her around. One way or another, there is a dark side to making impulsive/ ‘romantic’ choices without taking time to get to know the person. And that reminds me of a movie with Julia Roberts…. Sleeping with the Enemy. I’m gonna see if that’s either on youtube as a movie or an audio book.

      Okay, ya caught me. I’m lazy. 😉 During the day, unless it’s an exceptionally LAZY day, I listen to books as I clean or get ready for work.

      Good luck with your book! 🙂

      1. Thank you…. Got luck with your book as well and if there is anything I can do for you please let me know

        1. Will do! After tomorrow, I have a 3 day weekend! 🙂 🙂 😀 I’m looking forward to getting some writing done.

          1. ?

  30. Great reminder. At an opportune time. Reading over first draft and showing way too much plot leg in the first chapter. Thanks Kristen!

  31. Reblogged this on shanjeniah and commented:
    Something I’m learning…and this says it so well!

  32. This I am printing! . . . wait, I can do that can’t I? Oh, bother.

    • robin witt on September 24, 2014 at 4:19 pm
    • Reply

    thanks for another helpful post. I’ve had a heck of a time trying to break the habits of a decade of engineering report writing when I try to write fiction. the power of Secrets!! I love this!!

  33. I am so bad about over explaining things. It is one of the many parts of my writing that I have tried to quit.

  34. Reblogged this on Jennifer Scoullar and commented:
    I’ve pretty much finished my latest novel, Turtle Reef, except for one last read through. That means I’m taking a blogging holiday this week. But never fear, I’m reblogging a terrific post from my favourite agent blogger Kristen Nelson. This post is on the power of secrets in fiction. I hope you enjoy it!

    • athousandtimestooshort on September 29, 2014 at 4:14 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you – this is so helpful.

  35. Thanks for the reminders! I blame my Journalism background for my habitual over-explanations, but I just plain struggle with the concept of not telling WHY something is the way it is. I know I need to keep some details secret. I really do.

    But as for giving my characters secrets? Bring. It. On. I love it. The introvert who prefers to be left alone but is terrified of becoming a childless spinster. The librarian who watches the movie instead of reading the book. The gardener who toils for hours in the vegetable garden only to let the bounty rot in the fridge because he doesn’t eat vegetables. This is life represented in all its contradictory glory, and I think it is what makes storytelling so fun.

    Really great post. I’m reblogging at The Night Owl’s Guide to Reading.

  36. Reblogged this on The Night Owl's Guide to Reading and commented:
    Great reminders here… What do you think? Are you a secret-keeper?

  37. Reblogged this on Pukah Works and commented:
    Does it count when the entire story is a lie? Not only is the main character’s race unable to tell unvarnished truth, but who he is is not what he thinks (or anyone else who has met him, actually.) The entire series is one big untangle of this mystery – and it starts at his birth.

    Must be why it’s so easy to get past most sticky points in the story by adding a new personal torture for him. He’s growing in all the wrong directions, and the kick off for the series is going to be so much fun to incorporate.

  38. Reblogged this on The Writers Room and commented:
    crafting story

    • Kendolyn Fisher on September 18, 2017 at 5:02 pm
    • Reply

    This was a very good article. I believe I have too much ‘good’, not enough secrets and way too much explanation. It gave me a lot to think about for my characters development. Looking forward to revising.

  1. […] describe it in a way that I can understand (that doesn’t leave me baffled or shuddering). Generate Nerve-Shredding Story Tension—Power of the Secret-Keeper at Kristen Lamb’s Blog did just […]

  2. […] Generate Nerve-Shredding Story Tension—Power of the Secret-Keeper | Kristen Lamb’s Blog. […]

  3. […] drive great fiction, and for more on that, check out this post on being a great secret-keeper so that THIS post isn’t […]

  4. […] could really relate to. One of the points she made linked back to an earlier post discussing “Real” Self versus Authentic Self. As in what face your character puts on for the world to see versus what they are actually like: […]

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