Everyone Has a Secret

What’s most fascinating about meeting someone new is that you gradually learn who they are, how they think, and what events may have shaped their lives. On the flip side, the most boring way to introduce a character in a story is to let us learn everything about that character right up front.

For minor characters, it’s not necessary to know much about them but for any of the major characters, you absolutely must dribble out information about who that character is by their own actions and by the way others react to them.

To do this, you need to give each character a secret. A secret can be something the character keeps hidden from both he audience and other characters, or it can be something kept hidden just from other characters but known to the audience.

When a secret is hidden from other characters and the audience, the revelation of that secret is often a major turning point in the story. In “Ghost,” the hero is shocked to learn that his co-worker and supposed friend was the man who hired someone to mug him. In “The Sixth Sense,” the hero is shocked to learn that the boy he was helping had known about his real status as a person all along. In general, other major characters often hide a secret from the audience and the other characters for maximum shock value.

The hero’s mentor often has a haunted past that’s a secret to the audience and the hero. In “The Karate Kid,” the hero’s mentor is the old man who works as a handyman in the hero’s apartment building. He appears harmless but only later do we (and the hero) learn about the mentor’s painful past. The mentor needs a painful past that can only be made better through the hero defeating the villain.

In “Die Hard,” the hero’s mentor is the black policeman who reveals that he accidentally shot a kid and hans’t been able to pull his gun out since then.

Sometimes characters reveal secrets to the audience but not to other characters. This creates tension and suspense as we wait to find out how the other characters will react.

In “The Hateful Eight,” a woman being held by a bounty hunter witnesses someone pouring poison in the coffee pot, but she fails to tell anyone. Now the big question is why didn’t she tell anyone, who put the poison in the coffee pot (and why), and what will happen next when the other characters learn about the poison.

Perhaps the biggest secret comes from the hero. The hero’s big secret is that he or she wants a physical goal, but may not realize that what he or she really needs is an emotional goal.

Pick a physical goal for the hero and it will be clear and straightforward. Yet if all the hero does is achieve a physical goal, the move will be relatively flat and uninteresting. In “Die Hard,” the hero wants to get back with his wife, yet all those “Die Hard” clone movies created a nearly identical goal. What made “Die Hard” better was that the hero suddenly realized what he really needed was the emotional goal of admitting he was at fault for the break-up with his wife in the first place.

Your hero’s secret is really a secret from him or herself. The hero thinks he or she needs one thing (a selfish goal), but ultimately realizes he or she actually needed something else (a selfless goal to help others):

  • “Avatar” — The hero thinks he needs to get his legs back, but he really needs is to find a purpose for his life
  • “Titanic” — The hero thinks she needs to get away from an arranged marriage, but she really needs to define her own life
  • “Star Wars” — The hero think he needs to get off his boring planet, but he really needs to trust himself
  • “Up” — The hero thinks he needs to move his house to a tropical paradise, but he really needs to embrace life as an adventure again
  • “Little Miss Sunshine” — The hero think she needs to compete in a beauty pageant, but she really needs to bring her family together

Secrets are crucial because it creates surprise, suspense, and ultimately defines an emotionally satisfying ending when the hero discovers the biggest secret about him or herself that he or she may not have realized at the beginning.

Giver every major character a secret. It will make your story far more interesting and compelling.

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8 thoughts on “Everyone Has a Secret

  1. Steve says:

    First of all i must say, your 2 books on writing are amazing! They are super helpful as I have just got into writing. I tried looking for a contact option but couldn’t find one so I apologize that my following question is not related to this post.

    How would you suggest using your method to wiritng non-linear stories (ie. Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Prestige’ or ‘Pulp Fiction’)?

    1. wallyadmin says:

      Thank you for the compliment on my writing books. I greatly appreciate it and hope they can help others learn more about writing.

      As far as writing non-linear stories, the basic idea is the same. The characters need to learn something at specific parts of the story so non-linear stories are a bit more challenging since they involve jumping back to the past, future, or present, but the structure is still the same.

      It’s much easier to write linear stories, but non-linear stories can work too if you’re willing to jump around between time periods. The key is simply focusing on the point you’re trying to create first and then worry about whether the actual scene requires a jump to the past or not.

      Just make sure the jump to the past makes sense. In “Pulp Fiction,” the jump to the past in the end is foreshadowed by the beginning scene so it doesn’t appear to come out of nowhere. If you simply jump to the past for no apparent reason, you risk confusing your audience.

      1. Steve says:

        WOW thanks for your response! Is there a way to contact you with more writing questions or is this the best way? I have A LOT of questions and i’m not sure if it would be ok to flood a post on a specific topic with questions relating to other things

        1. wallyadmin says:

          Feel free to ask any questions you want. Just post your questions here so that way everyone can share in both the questions and any responses. That way everyone can benefit from the discussion.

          1. Steve says:

            That’s what I like to hear 🙂

            1) How would you suggest writing a series with an overarching conflict using your method (ie Star Wars Trilogy, Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings etc)? I’ve noticed most books on screenplays, when the use the first movie of a trilogy for examples, only stick to that first film and not the films after it that complete the full story.

            2) How would you suggest someone use your method for writing a story with two or maybe even three protagonists (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid/ The Prestige)? Would everything essentially be the same?

            3) Back to the topic of non-linear stories, as i am a visual learn, could you possible breakdown the structure of a film like ‘Pulp Fiction’ as it aligns with your method? I haven’t quite got into analyzing films yet.

            4) Just curious, have you heard of Dan Well’s ‘7 Point Structure’? I found it quite interesting and just thought I’d mention it if you might possibly be interested in it.

            Sorry for all the questions and i hope you understand them. I know I have more but they aren’t coming to mind now.

            Thanks again!

          2. Steve says:

            Ah also…

            6) Your book includes A LOT of knowledge basically using 4 part structure so I’ve been using your information as well as resources from other mediums to make an outline. Let’s say you have a story idea you want to turn into a full screenplay. Using all the info you give, how would you outline it out? Starting I assume from the log-line and progressing forward…maybe sketch character goals next? A good top to bottom basic outline…

            PS. I know around the end of your 15 Min.Movie.Method book you give something similar BUT throughout your book and some of your posts on here, you include many more things to look into. For example in one of your previous posts you say start sketching out the ACT III finale first then jump back to ACT I, then ACT IIA and then ACTIIB.

            I hope this makes sense 🙂 Thank You!

          3. Steve says:

            Last one for now…kind of goes along with #6..

            6.5) Can you confirm basic story structure as….

            *Act I
            *Act IIa
            *Act IIb
            *Act III

            Brokendown into…

            *Segment 1-8

            And each segment brokendown into…



  2. wallyadmin says:

    1) Most trilogies and other series movies are created either after the initial movie becomes a hit (“Star Wars”) or are based on existing books (“The Hunger Games” series). Generally the first story is a complete story and the other stories are incomplete stories, which makes them very unsuitable for studying since you can not write an incomplete story and expect to sell it unless you either have an initial story that’s a success or have proven credibility and success with the story in another medium such as a book. “Catching Fire” and “The Empire Strikes Back” would never have been the first movie made in the series because they depend on the first story and they don’t end with a conclusive and satisfying finale.

    2) With multiple protagonists, think of one as the hero and the other as the mentor. In “Thelma and Louise,” it can be argued that Thelma is the hero and Louise is the mentor or vice versa. In general, Thelma changes the most (going from a meek housewife to a free woman) but she also helps Louise change as well.

    3) Non-linear stories basically tell stories with sequences out of chronological order so it’s more complicated to write but the main purpose is the same. At the end of “Pulp Fiction,” one character changes and lives but the other character does not change and dies. It’s just more dramatic to see this change in the end even though we know one character will die.

    4) Never heard of the 7 Point Structure but learn and use anything that helps you.

    The basic four part structure is to make sure every scene and segment is interesting. Basically, don’t let a dull moment creep into your story and that will create a compelling screenplay on every page.

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