Secrets – a writer’s stock in trade

I started thinking about secrets after reading author Dora Goss’ post about keeping secrets. Looking at the relationships between men and women, she writes, “It seems to me that there are women men keep secrets from, and women men tell secrets to. Most women, at different points in their lives, occupy both of these positions: secrets are kept from them, and they are told secrets.”

Bloomsbury - adult edition
Bloomsbury – adult edition

In “real life,” I don’t like being told secrets because those who are asked to help hide one thing or another are usually part of the collateral damage when the truth comes out. As a writer, though, I love secrets because every novel begins with the unsaid premise that there are secrets within that the reader must uncover while reading the book.

I liked the imagery in Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. For one thing–like so many novels about extraordinary youths–here we had within Hogwarts School a secret room that all the master wizards of the realm could not (or did not) find, open up, and neutralize. To enjoy the story, the reader has to play along with the ruse that wizards many times more powerful and knowledgeable than young Harry Potter really had no clue about the chamber other than as an old myth about the castle.

Putting a Christian spin on the meaning of the chamber of secrets, John Granger sees Harry Potter as “everyman” the chamber as the world, the snake in the chamber as sin, the evil Lord Voldemort as Satan, etc. One can make a strong case for this interpretation in line with many religions and myths.

I tend to see a chamber of secrets as man’s unconscious mind and that like the powerful wizard teachers at Hogwarts, most of us see that part of the psyche as either a myth or–if real–a place too dangerous to visit. Using this view, a writer looks at his or her protagonist as an individual, badly flawed or otherwise, who doesn’t wholly know himself or herself, much less all of his/her capabilities.

When I start writing a story, my aim is always to conceal as much as possible from the reader without appearing to be concealing anything. I drop hints, many of which will only make sense later when the secrets home out. Like stage magicians, writers are presenting for your entertainment an illusion that obscures the mechanics of what’s really going on in front of your face.

A good magician seldom reveals how assistants disappear out of boxes, how rabbits appear in empty hats or how playing cards disappear into oranges, locked safes or the pockets of people sitting out in the audience. Of course, a great book has a climax to it and that’s when the reader finds out everything (maybe) that was happening that wasn’t apparent up to that point.

With the discovery, there is often surprise, but if the author has done his or her job well, there’s also a”but of course” moment of recognition. Later, the reviewers and critics will argue about how the author kept the secrets for so many pages and what those secrets really mean. Once all the reviews, articles and books have been written about the story, everyone will think they know everything.

But they won’t because authors never tell everything not even to the women men tell their secrets to.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Garden of Heaven Trilogy of fantasy novels: “The Seeker,” “The Sailor” and “The Betrayed.”