Thursday, November 14, 2013

Shh! I've Got a Secret

by C.J. Chase

Fiction is built around secrets. The characters in thrillers, mysteries, romantic comedies, and pretty much any other genre of commercial fiction have secrets. The surprise of a secret revealed is what keeps us watching the screen or flipping the pages. Consider this iconic scene from one of the most popular movies of all time:

Or how about this one:

But it’s not just the “very bad man” who has secrets in fiction. Even the heroes of fiction have secrets. In fact, every superhero--Superman, Spiderman, Batman--has a secret identity.

Indeed, for a new writer of fiction, learning what to hold back and when to reveal a secret is a skill that takes study and practice. As they say, timing is everything. Hold back too much early in a story, and the reader gets confused. Reveal a secret too soon, and the story loses suspense. Many times, the revelation is a turning point of the entire story.

Unfortunately, trying to keep sinful secrets is a real-life "skill" we work on developing almost from the moment we can talk. 

     Mom -- "Johnny*, who broke the window?"
     Johnny -- "Uh, I don't know."

(*Name changed to protect the guilty.)

And while our early efforts often fail (somehow, Mom always saw through the "Uh, I don't know" lie), we keep studying and practicing until we perfect the ability to hide the truth behind a curtain.

Why do we expend so much effort to keep these secrets?

Sometimes, simple cowardice is the explanation, such as when we fear to share what we (claim to) believe. We don't trust God to take care of us. In Genesis 12, God called Abram to leave all and follow him. And Abram did. Yet only a few verses later--still in the very same chapter even (Genesis 12)--we find Abram telling his wife to lie. They had traveled to Egypt to escape a famine. Abram decided his very beautiful wife would be too much of a temptation for the Egyptians, so he instructed her to say they were brother and sister lest the Egyptians kill him. Fortunately, God was looking out for poor Sarai, even if her husband was more concerned with his own skin.

In a related way, we sometimes want to preserve our reputations for having it all under control--our marriages, our children, our finances, our homes. We want people to believe that magazine quality image we project to the world, to think that if they walk into our homes, they'll see a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval above the fireplace. Yes, look upon me, ye lesser mortals. I am a person worthy of emulating. Consider the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. They sold a piece of property and donated the proceeds to the church. Well, actually, they donated some of the proceeds while telling everyone they had offered all. It was the lie that angered God, and he struck them down immediately. Fortunately for our sakes, God seldom employs such a rapid and permanent solution to those times when we put on our superChristian masks to hide the sinful secrets in our hearts.

Often, however, our efforts to keep sinful secrets are directly proportional to our desire to avoid the consequences of sins or even to keep committing the same sins over and over, consequence free. David was a man after God's own heart, and yet, his determination to hide his adultery with Bathsheba culminated in murder.

And that's the problem with "secret" sins. It takes more and more effort--and often more and more sin--to keep a secret, secret. Those pesky secrets have a way of coming out in the end. "For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil." (Ecclesiastes 12:14) 

Did you ever wonder just when Joseph's brothers finally confessed to their father Jacob that, oh, by the way, Joseph really wasn't killed by a wild animal; we sold him as a slave? Did they hold that secret for a couple of decades until the circumstances surrounding a certain trip to Egypt forced them to reveal what happened? Or did guilt eat away at them in the meantime until one of them finally came clean? Did the brothers look askance at each other during those intervening years, wondering who would be the first to crack?

I'm fond of saying that while conspiracy theories are a stretch in real life, they make for really great books. (And they're especially fun to write.) But it's only when those secrets become known that the characters are free to grow.

Do you have any favorite fictional secrets? Any scenes from movies or books or television where a secret was revealed and caught you by surprise? 

After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. Her current release, The Reluctant Earl, is now available  in online bookstores. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at 


  1. I agree that holding back a secret is powerful in fiction, not so great in real life.

  2. I have to go with two of the TV series I watch on Masterpiece: Sherlock (The Reichenbach Fall - I won't spoil it if you haven't seen it) and Downton Abbey (Mr. Pamuk)

    I don't think I stay interested in stories that don't have big secrets. Thanks for a lovely post that caused me to look at myself and wonder what I'm hiding as well.

  3. Great post, CJ. I'll have to dwell on this during the day to recall any past secrets revealed, but like Debra, I can think of a current one...

    In the TV series Blacklist, I'm waiting for the day when Red reveals that he's Elizabeth's birth father.

    Also, in Marvel's Agents of Shield Agent Coulson (their leader) has a big secret and I suspect it's that he's Skye's father.

    But of course, these are only my suspicions.

  4. btw, I couldn't get the videos to work on the Explorer browser, but they worked fine on Chrome.

  5. Okay, I'm having a lot of problems leaving comments -- but this one looks like it might work.

    Anita, I couldn't get the videos to work yesterday in Safari (Mac) when I was trying to make certain everything was okay, but they worked in Firefox (MS).

    Dina, it took me a long time to get the timing right for secrets in books. I kept wanting to hold too much back. People were always confused (and always left asking the wrong questions). Um, not sure if there's a link to my "real" life...

    Deb, dh mentioned Sherlock Holmes and asked what his secret is. I pointed out that Holmes has a problem with ... um, oh, dear. Not sure we're thinking of the same thing, but maybe I'd better not let that one out.

    The whole Big Misunderstanding plot device that is so annoying in romance novels is an example of holding a secret held too long. (Talk to each other already!)


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