Who hasn't kept a secret? Who among us has never told a lie?
Some would say that for society to function smoothly, it is a necessity to keep secrets and tell lies. We do it to spare someone's feelings or because we want to move forward in our own lives. We do it for many reasons. But maybe they all boil down to fear. Fear of the consequences. Fear of rejection. Fear of pain or shame or indignity.
"Having a secret feels like having the ability to keep some small part of yourself protected from the utter chaos of life," says author Barb Johnson in Issue 66 of Writers Ask. "We give our own secrets a great deal of power and invest tremendous energy in keeping them from others."
The fear of what would happen if the truth came out can damage our relationships and cause a great deal of anxiety and emotional turmoil. Yet we've all done it. In real life, we don't always get caught in our lie and some of us take secrets to our graves. But in fiction, secrets and lies often open a story, introducing intrigue into the narrative and compelling us to turn the page because we have an expectation that the truth will be revealed to us, at least, before the conclusion.
We know that when the secret does come out, all the pain and consequences the character hoped to avoid will follow. But we also know that the pain the character is trying to avoid will be temporary while the psychological toll of keeping the secret persists as long as the truth is hidden. This is fertile ground for character development and can underpin the plot. It creates mystery and gives the character depth. Readers relate to the story because we all know someone who has kept a secret or told a lie that unraveled. Yet in spite of this, we continue to tell lies and keep secrets.
"How can we know that sort of thing intellectually, how can we see that play out in others' lives and not recognize it in our own?" Barb Johnson asks.
As long as we keep asking this question, we'll find stories about secrets and lies compelling just as we'll continue to keep our own secrets and tell our lies.
A writer's journey