Monday, November 19, 2012

The Power of Secrets



Give every character a secret,” a well-known writer once told me. She was talking about writing novels for kids, but this proved to be especially good advice when I started writing mysteries. I discovered very quickly that secrets spice up mysteries like passionate scenes enhance erotic romances. Secrets help drive your plot. They provide tension. They make characters lie, misdirect, misinform, and blackmail. Secrets bring out the worst in your characters, and give readers good reason to suspect the wrong character of having murdered your victim.

We humans are curious creatures, and downright nosy at times. What motorist doesn’t rubberneck when passing an accident on the Expressway? Anything out of the ordinary sparks our interest, and secrets concern relationships, deeds, and habits involving the dark side. A character does something immoral, illegal or embarrassing and tells no one. Then someone finds out. When Character A threatens to reveal Character B’s secret, B may decide to kill A to keep him quiet.

In my opinion, the best secrets involve a character’s past. Past histories intrigue us, which is an excellent reason not to give out too much backstory about your characters. Dole out these juicy tidbits as needed. Rev up the reader’s need to find out a character’s secret. What has he done that’s so terrible, he’ll do anything to keep it hidden, even going so far as to murder?

Secrets abound in my romantic suspense, DANGEROUS RELATIONS, which came out recently with Uncial Press. Ardin Wesley has returned to her hometown when her cousin Suziette is murdered. Suziette’s widower, Brett, asks Ardin to help him adopt Suziette’s love child. Though attracted to Brett, Ardin discovers she wants to adopt the little girl herself. She’s suffered from an abusive marriage, and believes adopting the child is her only chance to have a family. But neither can adopt little Lionie until they learn the identity of her natural father. More deaths occur as Ardin and Brett uncover layer after layer of secrets, including Suziette’s list of lovers and more than she ever wanted to know about her ex-husband.

What are some of the secrets your characters have tried to hide? Leave a comment and tell me.

15 comments:

Palmaltas said...

Super topic, Marilyn! In my novel Who'll Kill Agnes?, Agnes kills her aunt and gets away with it. This is her secret but years later, suspicions arise. In my romance novel A Caribbean Summer, beach bum Peppy has a secret that only his brother knows. But that secret is the premise for the entire novel.

lynnerose said...

Marilyn, thanks for the compelling thoughts! Unraveling secrets play such an important part in unraveling mysteries, or any kind of intriguing story. Right now one of my favorite characters, Uncle Walter from "Frannie Buckets", seems like he's just a retired janitor. He's such a buffoon that nobody takes him seriously when he says about his past, "If I told you I'd have to kill you" -- but the fact is that he was once a spy.

Marilyn Levinson said...

Pat,
I LOVE your books--Agnes, and The Chameleon Chase, which I just finished reading. Your characters have more than their share of secrets.

Lynnerose,
Thanks for stopping by. You've chosen a wonderful example of a character with a secret.

Steven J. Wangsness said...

In my mystery Tainted Souls, the protagonist labors under the effects of a dark episode from his past, that is only gradually revealed. It's key to understanding his character. His partner has a secret history, too, that explains his ultimate conduct.

I like secrets, because all of us have a secret interior life. Except maybe those few people who share EVERYTHING about themselves with others. But who wants to hang around with them?

Marilyn Levinson said...

So true, Steven. Secrets fester and often affect behavior. I agree, we all have a secret interior life. I suspect that includes those blabbermouths, who have a secret or two they keep to themselves.

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Very intriguing post, Marilyn! You've made excellent points. Ahhh...secrets abound in my true crime memoir; the potential log line even hints at it: "Sometimes, a lie reveals the truth." If it wasn't for this particular lie, there would be NO story! Because the LIE was generated (allegedly to protect and misdirect) and passed on to another generation, once I heard it (and I believed it to be true), it got the hair on my neck bristling.

Marilyn Levinson said...

Kathy,
So glad you stopped by. How much misery and mayhem in life are caused by secrets?

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I think all novels need "secrets." That's why we don't want to give too much away in back story but let revelations come about during the course of the book. It makes for a much more intriguing novel. To answer your question, in my Kim Reynolds librarian sleuth series, each novel reveals more about the main character as she becomes involved in solving a series of murders. So in THE INFERNO COLLECTION, the reader learns that Kim doubts her legitimacy, that her so-called father was a murderer, that she is troubled by visions. In THE DROWNING POOL, Kim tries her best to ignore her connections to the dead but uncovers troubling information. Her ability to solve crimes by traditional and unorthodox paranormal means continues in THE TRUTH SLEUTH. Of course, she is not the only detective in the series with complex backgrounds and "secrets".

Marilyn Levinson said...

Jacqueline,
I love that you reveal a bit more about your sleuth in each of your books. Interesting, that the more books we write, the better we learn that "less is more."

marja said...

Have you ever noticed that books with words like "secret" in the title generally sell well? You're right about secrets. Great post!
Marja McGraw

Donna Coe-Velleman said...

I love mysteries. Thanks for the tidbits of info.

Marilyn Levinson said...

Marja and Donna,
Thanks for stopping by.

Morgan Mandel said...

I dare not divulge any of my characters' secrets!

That said, secrets are a great way of heightening suspense in any book. Keeps the reader wondering when the secret that will make a difference will be revealed and what will be the result!

Morgan Mandel
http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

Gloria Alden said...

In my first book, just about everyone has a secret, including an ex-monk, which gradually come out. It makes it hard for readers to solve the murder even though I did leave clues throughout pointing to the murderer - as well as red herrings, of course.

Marilyn Levinson said...

I agree, Morgan. And often a character's secret has nothing to do with the murder.

Gloria, sounds like you have the perfect mix for your mystery.