“I have been in love with story all my life,” says Gayle Roper, the award winning author of more than forty-five books. “Give me a story with strong characters and a captivating plot, and I’m one happy reader. Or writer.”
Among Gayle’s awards are the prestigious Romance Writers of America’s RITA Award, the Carol Award from American Christian Fiction Writers, two Inspirational Readers Choice Awards, and three HOLT Medallions. She has been a Christy finalist three times and has received the Lifetime Achievement Award and the Reviewers Choice Award from Romantic Times Book Report.
For her work in training Christian writers Gayle has won special recognition from Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, St. Davids CWC, Florida CWC, and Greater Philadelphia CWC. She lives in southeastern Pennsylvania. She enjoys reading, spending time at the family’s Canadian cottage, gardening, and eating out every time she can manage it.
We’ve been talking about red herrings, those false clues that are part of any mystery or suspense novel. We talked about the idea that red herrings are made much of to misdirect the reader while the more important the clue, the more subtle its introduction. We mentioned that clues are often hidden in a cluster of items, all but one of these items red herrings.
Clues can also be hidden in the secrets your characters have. One of the most effective means of keeping the tension taut in a story is to give everyone a secret, knowing that each character will go to great lengths to protect his or her secret. Lies flow in the cause of self-protection, even if they make someone look guilty of the crime around which the book centers.
A past affair, an arrest in college for DUI, a child born out of wedlock, a business failure, a scandalous family reputation, a tarnish on one’s own reputation, a job loss, a jail sentence, a poor education, an abusive childhood—the list of possible secrets is as long as your list of characters.
The list of reasons for keeping these secrets is also long, but every reason rests on what your character perceives as devastating consequences if the secret is revealed.
If people knew about a past brush with the law, they wouldn’t want you as pastor.
If people knew about the child you had at sixteen, your moral authority in the family would be ruined.
If people knew about the false accusation of sexual harassment made by a disgruntled ex-employee, you’d never get tenure.
If people knew about the foolish financial decisions you made day trading and how broke you really were, they’d never allow you to marry their daughter.
The secret to a successful skeleton in the closet is matching the deed and the reasons for keeping the secret to the person.
Take the child born outside marriage. For an older character, say the family’s grand dame, such a thing might be an embarrassment, a cause of constant guilt, a deep regret, a part of her life she wants to make believe never happened. If the family knew, they’d never respect her again, and because of her past failure, their esteem is vital to her.
On the other hand for a modern kid of sixteen, an unwed pregnancy might be a badge of honor, an inconvenience, a hiccup in her life’s plans, but not the distressing moral flaw of her grandmother’s generation. This kid needs another secret, one whose revelation she feels would damage her in the eyes of others. Perhaps she’s on probation for shoplifting. Perhaps she’s secretly seeing a boy her family considers unworthy. Perhaps she’s planning to run away for reasons she can’t bear to talk about because they’re so ugly.
As the mystery progresses and the secrets are slowly revealed, don’t squander the information without the story gaining something substantial in return. When Grandmom’s moral lapse of forty years ago is revealed, make sure it affects the family significantly. Perhaps knowing she was human after all allows a rift between her and her daughter to be healed. Perhaps learning of this now-adult child reveals another person who deserves a cut of the inheritance, much to everyone’s distress. Perhaps there is now another suspect for the role of murderer.
Create secrets and use them wisely because…
Secrets lead to lies.
Secrets lead to moral dilemmas.
Secrets lead to confusion.
Secrets lead to false clues.
Revealed secrets move the story.