3.08.2016

What’s Not Told

What to tell and what to hold back from other characters is a question continually faced by an author as a novel unfolds. One intriguing variety of secrets is the kind that a protagonist hides in order to avoid shame or outright rejection. This issue of morality speaks directly to the purpose of most dramas.

The mechanics of when to reveal a secret is a less compelling subject than how to describe what is happening in the mind of the guilty character. That’s where the worm gnaws away at the wood. In real life, we all have secrets that we don't wish to be known. On one end of the range can be grouped acts of rashness or stupidity that we feel would demean us in the eyes of others. At the other lurk longings or actions that would destroy a relationship or reputation.

In order to access how a character feels about keeping a secret, you can consider how it feels to harbor a secret in real life. In the first place, rarely does a person think in terms of “everyone.” You think of specific individuals, like your spouse or your children, who would be appalled if the secret was known. Once you focus on a single person, you can write out a skein of thoughts about how she would react if she learned the secret.

The next order of business is thinking through how the guilty character feels as the novel goes on. As circumstances change, does the secret continue to feel so shameful? A married man who takes up visiting porn sites, for example, might not care as much if he finds out his wife is secretly dating another man. Like a prism that shows different colors as it is turned, a secret can be viewed in successive stages—as long as you keep bringing it up. Each time an event occurs that makes the secret more or less potent, you can write out a stream of thoughts about how the withholding is newly justified.

One other absorbing aspect of secrets is the compulsion to confess. This too changes over time, depending on how the secret interferes with what is going on. A woman who shows no interest in having sex with her husband because she finds it so much more exciting on her lunch break can be forced, either by his outrage or her conscience, to divulge the true reason for her reluctance. This process also can proceed by stages. Each time you can continue to modulate either the excuses the character gives or the reproaches she delivers to herself. Believe me, the reader wants to know every permutation.

Exercise: Think of a secret you’d never tell anyone. Write out what it is and why the object of desire is forbidden. What keeps drawing you to it, or why can’t you forget it? Now pick out the character you want to hold the secret. How can you adjust what you’ve written about yourself to the character and his circumstances?

“The glamour of being forbidden must not be underestimated.”
—Salman Rushdie

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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