Sunday, February 7, 2010


This week I learned a secret.  It got me thinking about the difference between secrets in reality and in fiction.

A secret is simply a fact obscured from a particular observer.  Like any other fact, it's like a celestial object; it exerts force on everything around it and ultimately impacts you whether you can see it from your own backyard or not.

Characters in fiction are often occupied with observing effects to deduce a secret cause.  But in real life, unless we're being paid to do this, we rarely do.  To analyze the flow of events, discern the shape of individual ripples, and interpolate the pebbles from which they emanate would be considered futile at best, and more likely a combination of paranoia and vanity.

Then there is the question of revelation and what we do about it. This is where fiction and reality really part ways. 

To being with, if someone simply tells us a secret in real life, whether or not we believe it at all is rarely a function of reason and evidence.  (How many people still believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya?)  But this phenomenon is mostly ignored in fiction.  Many, many stories exist for no other reason than to reveal a secret.  That it will be believed is assumed, since the author has spent so much time preparing you to be delighted by it.

Furthermore, in fiction, the revelation of a secret is virtually always an inflection point.  The trajectory of characters' lives are changed as a result of the revelation.

In reality, for most people most of the time, the revelations are no more than a little extra noise in the pattern.   It is the secret itself that has already made the waves.  When the economy is a mess, does it really matter to you personally whether or not you know the names of the people who made the greedy decisions that got us here?  Or does it just matter that you don't have a job?

The fact revealed to me this week was interesting, but at the end of day I've already been dealing with the effects of it for a while and will continue to.  Learning the truth behind them simply hasn't changed anything.  It wouldn't make a very good story.


  1. In a story, secrets tend to squirm their way out, and the reader often stays interested in the story primarily because they can see a secret squirming but they don't know what it is yet.

    In real life, people are pretty good at keeping their secrets. Often, they're even pretty good at keeping other people's secrets. And that's just not as much fun! So hurray for books. :)

  2. Excellent thoughts, Kate.

    Therefore, it's revealing that we choose to read fiction, and we don't choose to read life.

  3. JJ - Not only are people better at keeping secrets in real life, the stakes just aren't that high.

    Jason - Ignorance is bliss. We'd rather read about a character who has the power to do something about what they learn than learn something ourselves and (most likely) be impotent.