Intrigue is the root of so much great storytelling. I think the trick to writing it well is to give enough clues for the reader to have a few guesses at what secret is held by the mysterious aristocrat/creepy housekeeper/any character who gives cryptic answers to simple questions while gazing with a troubled frown into the middle distance. Yet don’t let your audience get too close to the truth- perhaps pop in a few red herrings; a surprise ending is always a treat! Or, it can be great fun to drum up a bit of dramatic irony- let your audience in on the secret and let the anticipation for the fall out build!
I recently read the absolutely brilliant Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Bradden. The eponymous protagonist lacks a credible back story, refuses to see certain guests and giggles awkwardly before becoming deathly pale far too often to be innocent. The reader is brilliantly fooled along with the characters up until the final dénouement: more twists than a curly-wurly on a helter skelter.
Many of the best secrets are hidden in attics (see Dorian Gray) but Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester hides a whole wife up there. It is an undeniable classic by Charlotte Brontë; secrecy and foreboding are cleverly maintained throughout.
Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations has a greatly unexpected reveal- who’s funding Pip? Probably one of the eccentric wealthy people in the novel…or perhaps not!
In The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Misselthwaite Manor is host to many secrets behind locked doors, in addition to the magical garden. Even a child, Colin, is hidden away. It is a master class in that timeless literary technique of implying something’s wrong with the use of shifty servants.
A complex web of secrets is found in Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. The biggest secret is who the title character really is. Is he the illegitimate son of the chap that he suspects is his father? Moreover, everyone else is hiding something: affairs, secret children, the fact that they’ve found out someone else’s secret but aren’t willing to tell them. The whole thing becomes an ‘I know something you don’t know’ to the power of ‘I know something you think I don’t know but actually, I do’.
Also, the device is used in practically every Shakespeare play:
Romeo and Juliet: ‘I just met you, and this is crazy, but how about we get married and keep it a secret from our families?’
Hamlet: ‘I killed your father to marry your mother.’ and, ‘I’m not actually mad. Or am I?’
Julius Caesar: ‘We’re going to kill the chap in charge, and yep, Brutus is coming too.’
Merchant of Venice: ‘I’m a woman dressed as a man.’
Twelfth Night: ‘I’m a woman dressed as a man.’
The Merry Wives of Windsor: ‘I’m a man dressed as a woman.’ (Just for a touch of variety…)
What do you think of my list? Do any other brilliant fictional secrets spring to mind? Please share in the comments!