Secrets & Lies
Updated: Mar 19
Not too long ago, I attended a writing class that focused on the interesting subject matter of "secrets and lies" as narrative devices. So inspired by the super-informative class, I figured I'd shared the wisdom I collected in this next post while at the same time gathering my thoughts on the matter. Without further adieu, let's explore the secrets and lies our characters face in our stories.
Rather than merely defining the words by way of a dictionary, let's take the route of categorizing secrets and lies by way of human experience. Secrets and lies are products of the messy part of the human condition. What is a secret? An omitted truth? What is a lie? A way out of social confrontation? Secrets and lies are identities of our own characters often defined through the decision to misdirect or mislead to protect our truths.
With the above in mind, let's then define secrets in the following way:
A secret is something true that is withheld by one or many for any reason.
As for the lie, let's define the concept with the same categorization in mind:
A lie is something false that is not withheld and conceals the truth.
With these two "definitions" in place, we've opened the floor for attaching some mechanics to these narrative devices. Since secrets protect actual truths, they inevitably lead to lies. Take note that unlike lies, secrecy is not the same as privacy. Often secrets violate the privacy of our characters since, to conceal a truth, more than one person will have to become involved in someone's privacy. To learn the truth of this secret, a character will have to invade someone else's privacy to learn it. Another mechanic to consider when working with secrets and lies is to establish the parameters of morality motivation. When it comes to the use of secrets and lies, moral convictions are held tightly while moral judgments are held lightly.
On the note of judgments, let's also "define" judgments as narrative components:
Judgments are triggered by other people and are usually accompanied by a story of their own. Judgments are another product of the human experience.
With all of this spelled out, how do secrets and lies apply to your characters? Real-life lessons and perceptions give writers the research they need to answer the following questions:
Why does someone keep a secret?
Why does someone keep a lie?
Why does someone break a secret?
Why does someone break a lie?
What motives are behind questions like these when posed to your characters? What are the different reasons any of your characters have for doing any of these things? Do your characters agree on the secret they are keeping? Do your characters agree on the lie they are maintaining?
Effectively secrets and lies are like magic spells, and as writers, we are the casters of those spells. We understand the effects of casting and being casted upon by those spells. We are also the breakers of these spells, especially the ones that altar human identities.
Let's explore an example or two of when a magic spell was a secret or a lie. The most famous I can think of is the timeless tale of Cinderella.
I won't recount the premise because we all know it. Here is a drawn-out example of the mechanics of secrets and lies in a story with literal magic and spells:
Secret: Cinderella's fairy godmother fashions her a ball gown and pumpkin coach to attend the ball. Dressed too finely by comparison to the gown her stepsisters tore to pieces, Cinderella is not recognized by her cruel step-mother and sisters at the ball. Cinderella is in attendance at the ball and her identity is withheld by her disguise.
Lie: Cinderella's wicked step-mother discovers Cinderella was the maiden who stole the prince's heart at the ball. When the page arrives with the glass slipper, she tries to tell the page that Cinderella is the scullery maid. The wicked step-mother is trying to conceal the truth with a false statement.
Other Secrets: Just before midnight, Cinderella is asked for her name by the prince. Cinderella remembers her fairy godmother's explanation regarding the spell breaking at midnight and withholds her name before rushing off into the night. Cinderella withholds something truthful without the use of falsehood.
Other Lies: When Cinderella arrives at the ball, the nobility and prince in attendance, mistaken Cinderella for a Queen. This lie, generated by others, implies that Cinderella both has the beauty of a grown and married woman. Other characters, in this case, society, unintentionally accepts a falsehood based upon appearances.
The above example is somewhat taking the mechanics of secrets and lies in a literal sense, but you get the idea. The other reason I chose this specific example is that it touches on yet another mechanic to consider when working with secrets and lies in your story: society.
A society, or community if you prefer, will often agree on what secrets to keep and what lies to tell to conceal the truth. Sometimes this community-spread agreement appears in the form of religion, secular or otherwise. Sometimes this community-wide agreement has an origin from events of the past, dark or otherwise. Understanding this, here are several questions to consider:
How does it affect society?
How does it affect the community?
Where was it born?
How does it end?
*It being the secret or lie
Let's apply this concept to another example. Let's talk about The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Secret: James Gatz dons the persona of Jay Gatsby to blend in with the "old money" to reach Daisy. James conceals his truth through a convincing facade of a desirable status that fools all except Daisy, who knows his true identity.
Lie: James convinces himself with a falsehood that time can be reversed and the life he's dreamed with Daisy can be achieved. Daisy's child, among other well-placed plot devices, foreshadow the inevitable truth that will break the spell of this lie.
Other Secrets: Symbolically, Daisy can live in the present and face its reality. Literally, Daisy withholds her acceptance of her marriage to Tom during her time with James. When the confrontation between both men occurs, Daisy chooses honesty and reveals through action rather than words that she's dispelled the lie of her nostalgia regarding James.
Other Lies: Nick, as both the protagonist and narrator of this book, believes he is the voice of reason among the other voices present in the story. Like James, Nick quickly proves to be an unreliable narrator through the use of plot devices and character interaction that dispel this lie.
In this example, the mechanics of secrets and lies are blending with more complexity. In the case of James Gatz, his persona as Jay Gatzby is a lie to some but a concealed truth to others. Daisy knows who James is, and later, so does Nick. Even so, James Gatz is Jay Gatsby, a new self that allowed him to reach farther in a world full of societally-driven personas.
Secrets and lies are riveting narrative devices that affect, and sometimes afflict your character's identity. However you choose to use secrets and lies in your stories, delve into the mess of the human condition and let it add the tension or lucky breaks your plots are waiting for.