Do Your Characters Really Need Secrets?

Lady orchidOccasionally, writers get it into their heads that secrets between characters are an essential part of good storytelling. While there are some very good stories that hinge on one character keeping a secret until a critical moment, the reality is that many stories suffer, rather than benefit, from the added complication of characters keeping secrets.

When you’re debating whether or not your story ‘needs’ a secret as part of its plot, the first thing to consider is how long you intend the story to be. If you’re writing a short novella of 10,000 to 30,000 words, for example, then you’re already working with very limited space for character development as well as the exposition of your plot. If you choose to complicate that plot by having one character keep a secret until the last minute, you risk confusing and alienating your readers.

However, if you’re alright with your story’s plot being driven entirely by one character’s secret, then you can use this narrative device effectively in a short work. Be sure to let the reader know early on that the character is hiding something – maybe have an unusual action go unexplained, or have an apparently uneducated character possess a wealth of knowledge in a specialized field. As the story goes on, these bits of information can become more frequent and more tantalizing, until the secret is revealed in the climax of the story.

There is always some plot complication – whether it’s secrets between characters, lies that your characters believe, or untold stories from a character’s past – being touted as ‘essential’ to an interesting story. While there are plenty of interesting stories that hinge on some plot complication, you should be careful when using them in shorter works. If your plot does not focus heavily on the surprising element, then it may be a good idea to leave it out entirely.