Friday, August 20, 2010

Deep Dark Secret...Revealed!

While I was studying up for a presentation I gave at the ANWA Retreat last month, I was reading James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure. This book is by faaaaaaar THE BEST book on fiction writing I have ever come across. I adore it. It changed the way I think about writing, and I am kicking myself for not reading it 10 years earlier. (Okay, it wasn't written then, but, dang it!)

I really like the way Bell suggests setting up a plot--how to mine your psyche and your past for ideas, how to arrange scenes, etc. I am going to post about this more later, but the thing I am thinking about today is one of his sections: The Dark Secret.

One way of creating tension in a story, and of creating exciting and compelling characters is to give them a dark secret--something that could hurt them deeply if it comes to light, or something that could hurt someone they love, something they are trying to achieve (could stand between them and their goal or RULING PASSION), or destroy trust or reputation. They should be utterly desperate to keep the secret hidden. As writers we should consider to what lengths the character will go to prevent it from leaking out.

James N. Frey in that other great book How to Write a Da*n Good Novel insists that "every character should have something to hide." Soap operas are excellent examples of this.

So, last night I was lazing about watching a movie with my husband: Bandslam. I had low expectations for the show, and then bam! About 3/4 of the way through, a dark secret of the by-now-beloved main character comes to light to both the audience and to all his newfound friends. It nearly destroys everything he has worked for thus far and creates major tension up until the final minutes of the showdown in the climax of the show.

Suddenly for me this movie went from formula kid-show to,"Wow, what a cool script. I wish I could concoct something like this."

It's something I think would really help round out one of my characters during this edit. She's great but a little flat. A dark secret would make her much more interesting.

So, in regards to candy, I do have a dark secret in my candy-eating past. For several years in the 1970s, I was a hard core Candy Cigarette fan. (Cue the "dun-dun-dun" music here.) 

Yes! It's true! My cousin Matt and I bought them on Saturdays at the Milk Depot for 25 cents. Then we hid under the bridge in the canal and actually pretended we were smoking when we ate them. I savored that pepperminty flavor on the sly and I don't remember telling my mom or dad about it.

I'm so ashamed. I hope you'll all forgive me and know that I've reformed from this anti-social behavior since then.

But, come on! Geez. What kind of jerks made candy cigarettes? That's just shameful, don't you think?


  1. I remember buying candy cigarettes as a kid. Very strange product, that's for sure. I enjoyed your post, and learned so much from your retreat presentation! Just when we think our manuscripts are done, BAM, we learn some great ideas for making them better. Now I need to go through and up the tension and conflicts all along the way.

  2. I know just what you mean about BAM learning something new and having to go back (or wishing you could!) Sigh. I guess that's why they say you could edit forever. At some point we have to let ourselves be finished. ??

  3. We weren't aloud to eat candy cigarettes, naturally. But I too remember the occasional rebellious secret purchase from circle K and eating them in the desert.

  4. Julie-I talked to a guy in the bank today about candy and this topic. He admitted to fake-smoking on the sly as a kid too. How deep does this deception run in our culture?????

  5. Argh! All these books on writing that I want, and now I have to add one more. Love your posts, by the way.

  6. Thanks, Melinda. Check the library. That's where I found both of these originally.


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