Unseat Your Hero With a Terrible Secret

By Sean Platt

fearful woman covering her mouth with both hands

Today I’d like to talk about really shaking the ground beneath your hero and one of the best ways to do that is to have them discover a secret, a really, really dark secret.

(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the Smarter Artist Podcast)

Like think about a secret that would make Dave giggle like a little schoolgirl and you’re on the right track.

This is really trope-y for a reason, because it really works.

If you think of Lifetime movies, like there are so many Lifetime movies where that’s the basic hook. Someone is discovering this dark secret.

So really just ask yourself what can that secret be?

I actually don’t watch a lot of Lifetime, although I understand what kind of programming is there, but growing up I used to love those movie of the weeks with Tory Spelling. There was one where I think it was Tory Spelling playing a hooker, where she finds out that one of her clients is her father.

The secret, it’s terrible. Her father sees hookers and she happens to be the call girl who answers the door and that’s her secret too. That’s good.

But this is a terrifying thing because when you stumble on a secret and it’s a dark secret from someone you know, then the sense of danger is immediate.

There’s another movie, and I actually never saw this movie but I remember seeing the trailer as a kid and thinking that looks creepy. I think it was Goldie Hawn and she’s married to her husband forever, 20 years or whatever and then she finds out he’s a killer. He’s got a secret life as a serial murderer.

Now think about how devastating that is. Like you find out this information but now you haven’t been touched. You’ve been safe. So you’re probably going to stay safe as long as you keep the secret.

And now you’re going to want to investigate and the character’s going to want to snoop around into the past and see how many people he’s killed. And then of course there’s going to be cat and mouse and basically the two main characters. The woman and her husband are not going to play chicken because they don’t know who knows what at any given time.

And that’s an incredible sense of tension that you can really ratchet up there pretty quickly.

And there’s infinite variations of this which is why you’ve seen it so many times.

masksSo let’s think of a few more just to prove this.

Here’s another one that we’ve seen millions of times: He has another family, right. All of a sudden she’s going through his wallet – oh, Dave will like this.

She’s going through his pants and she finds not his real wallet but his decoy wallet. And inside the decoy wallet is – what is this! There’s like a fake driver’s license with his face, a different name and pictures of a different family. Like what the hell!

And of course that would be a terrible secret because if he’s lying to her about that, what else is he lying about?

Receipts for obnoxious things. What if a husband goes into a wife’s purse because he suspects her of cheating and he finds out she’s not cheating but she’s spent over $100,000 on credit and they’re basically going to go broke.

But he can’t tell her for whatever reason. Maybe she’s running out the clock because her family has money and he just needs to make sure that money is coming to him.

It doesn’t really matter what it is. It’s pretty easy to find – oooh, a secret addiction. Secret addictions are really good. So one person stumbles on another person has been like putting vodka in their water bottle. They’re a closet alcoholic or popping pills or something.

Again, it doesn’t matter what it is. It’s that you can really make that feeling visceral. You can make that sense of discovery dangerous and you can really push that for the readers.

And it’s going to resonate with them because we all have those fears. We all are scared of certain things and one of the scariest things is having your world pulled out from under you. Where you think something is a certain way and then you are told that it’s the opposite.

That can really unseat us.

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So think about your hero and what could be waiting in the dark for her. It’s an important question and only you can answer it. Best of luck getting it into your story.

Sean Platt is the founder of Sterling & Stone and loves that he not only gets paid to make up stories and come up with crazy ideas, but that he gets to do so with his best friends. Together, they've also co-authored the bestselling non-fiction titles Write. Publish. Repeat., Fiction Unboxed, and Iterate & Optimize to help Smarter Artists get smarter, faster.

Sean lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Cindy and their two children, Ethan and Haley.

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