Pssst! Ellen Potter on the Power of Writing with Secrets

Ellen Potter, prolific author of Slob, The Kneebone Boy, and the Olivia Kidney books returns with The Humming Room, a re-interpretation of The Secret Garden. Read on for her advice about how a secret can be a secret weapon in a writer’s toolkit.

“I know a secret.”

Four little words. That’s all it takes to make people stop whatever it is they’re doing and pay attention. That’s some powerful juju, and writers know it. Nothing can sweep a reader into a story, and keep them reading until the wee hours of the morning, like a really juicy secret.

My most recent book, The Humming Room, is a retelling of one of the most beloved books about secrets—The Secret Garden.  As you can imagine, I’ve been doing quite a lot of thinking on the subject of writing with secrets and have come up with a few tips:

Writing with a secret is not very different from living with a secret, so . . . Tip # 1: Let it slip that you have a secret. Otherwise, where’s the fun?

Tip # 2: Now that you’ve let it slip, your job is to keep the secret. I know that seems obvious, but it’s actually harder than you might think, and here’s why:  As the story progresses, the secret needs to be unearthed a bit. Your readers are excavating as they are reading, and you’ll want them to find a shard or two of something promising in order to encourage them to keep digging. It might be a physical object.  It might be something that a character says. It might be a simple gut feeling that your character has. Whatever it is, it must be enticing yet still maddeningly puzzling.

Tip # 3 (heads up, this one is really important): Make sure that the pursuit of the secret is at least as interesting as the secret itself.

Now this is crucial because, unlike real life, your readers can simply flip to the end of the book to find out what the heck the secret is. So how do you help your readers to sustain that breathless “Leave me alone, can’t you see I’m reading!” interest in the pursuit? Well, a big part of it is making sure that you, the writer, are just as interested in the pursuit as the reader. This isn’t easy, since you already know the secret, right?

That’s when you have to take the Lawn Mower Dude approach.

A friend of mine drove across country with only a few AAA maps. She deliberately left her GPS at home. Whenever she got lost, she stopped a dude who was mowing his lawn (in every town across the nation, there is always a dude mowing his lawn) and asked for directions. Sometimes Lawn Mower Dude gave her good directions; and sometimes she wound up at an alpaca farm or a gumball factory. That suited her just fine. Yes, she wanted to reach her destination; but she also wanted to see some interesting stuff along the way.

When writing about a secret, leave the GPS at home and keep an open mind. While it’s good to know where you’re going, be willing to take some back roads. Let yourself be surprised by odd twists and turns in the storyline that you haven’t mapped out ahead of time.

While writing The Humming Room, I knew that there was a hidden garden. In fact, since most of the Western Hemisphere has read The Secret Garden, they would also know that there was . . . wait for it . . . a secret garden. How on earth was I supposed to captivate my readers, and myself, with a secret that we all already knew?

Oh yeah. Lawn Mower Dude.

The “back road” I followed was the main character, Roo. A half-wild girl from a violent home, she has a talent for hiding. Bang! There was my interesting detour: This girl can find secret places. Not only does she find the garden, but she finds other things as well . . . a mysterious boy who may or may not be human; a box of treasures hidden by a dying girl; the source of the eerie humming in the house.  Yes, she finds the secret garden too, but in the process she has so many other adventures that (I hope) readers forget that they already know the secret.

Which leads me to Tip # 4: The secret itself is not the most important part of the story. As with all works of fiction, the heart of the story is your characters. Your focus should be on how the character handles the secret, withholds the secret, discovers the secret, blabs the secret. Yes, the secret itself may drive the story forward, but it’s your characters that will keep readers from peeking at the last page to see how it all plays out.


Want to try your hand at it? A few writing workshop ideas from Ellen to incorporate secrets into your work…

1. Swapping Secrets: Each person writes a secret on a slip of paper and folds it up. After putting the slips of paper it in a bowl, and giving it a good shake, each person picks out a secret. Using the secret on the slip of paper, write a scene in which one person tries to keep that secret, while another one tries to coerce him or her into telling it. The scene may be written entirely in dialogue.

2. The Secret Room: There is a hidden room in a house. Have your character find a way in. What’s in there? Why has it been kept secret?

4 thoughts on “Pssst! Ellen Potter on the Power of Writing with Secrets

  1. This is the perfect tip for my story. It has been harder than I thought which hangs me up. Thank you so much. I am going to work on my secret and let it unfold like it should.

  2. THANK YOU for posting this. Your timing is perfect!! My main character has a VERY big secret which I have been revealing in fragments. Your tips will prove invaluable as I this secret unravels. I’m excited to get back to work! 🙂

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