Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Nothing gets a reader to love a book quite so much as getting them to engage with it. Passive readers experience a story and move on, but engaged readers mull over the plot, theorize about character motivations, and fantasize about paths not taken (sometimes enough to write them), all while the years go by and their adoration only grows. And this isn’t the kind of love you hide, it’s the kind you shout about – the kind that gets you to recommend a book or series to all your friends, to preorder the author’s next book the day it’s announced, and to demand a movie adaptation.
The stories that engage readers are those that allow them the space to explore – the ones with a rich backstory, characters who are only partially understood, and the implication of adventures not yet revealed or still to come. This is the reward for deep characterization or considered plotting; for putting that bit of extra work into your world building.
And yet there’s an even deeper, and riskier, approach. One where, instead of just introducing story elements that are half-glimpsed or open to interpretation, you take the effort to hide certain details of the plot. Most readers will never notice them – in fact if you do it well, they’ll be hidden to the majority – so how is it that they may be the key to earning a cult following?
Hide your secrets
Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a twisting mystery of a book. In it, multiple narrators give their personal accounts of different events – some of which may be fact, and some of which may be fiction – as well as reading and commenting on each other’s accounts.
At the heart of the book is a compelling haunted house story, which in turn finds itself annotated and pulled apart by several layers of narrator. The book makes the reader work in a variety of ways – at one point, the pages famously become difficult to read, with text disarrayed in such a way that the reader has to put it together. Later, there’s a private letter which contains a hidden skip code, communicating a separate message to the diligent reader.
In a similar way, the story contains details that hint at the nature of the haunting and of the various narrators. Certain choices in the writing suggest there may be a monster, while others disagree, positing the house as a more natural phenomenon. The genius of Danielewski’s book is that it works on multiple levels – for the casual reader, there’s a relatively straightforward story, while dedicated readers can pick through and compare evidence, solve codes, and decipher hidden meanings to try and unearth a deeper truth.
By creating the resources readers need to take this journey, Danielewski has cultivated a cult following. Websites and message boards chronicle theories about the story, with dedicated users debating their own pet theories. By hiding secrets within his narrative, Danielewski has beguiled a huge audience.Making fans work for content can inspire a cult following.Click To Tweet
It’s a great trick, and something you’d be smart to include in your writing, but it’s also the tip of a literary technique that’s only going to grow in popularity. Why? Well, because of haunted animatronics.
The secret of Freddy Fazbear
While there are many works of literature that include hidden secrets, and we’ll come back to them shortly, this phenomenon is far more common in modern videogames. Currently, there’s a huge trend among fans for watching other people play games online, and this poses a huge problem for writers of videogame narratives.
How do you put together a truly gripping plot in a cultural space where people are sharing not just information, but the narrative experience? It may be that someone enjoys playing a game and enjoys watching someone else play it – so how do you craft a narrative that appeals to either and both those experiences?
More and more, the answer is to hide that narrative within the playing experience. There’ll still be a bare bones story – a progression of goals for the player – but a much more labyrinthine plot lurks in the background, often only available in piecemeal fashion.
One of the most obvious examples is the game series Dark Souls. Here, different items found in the game (shields, swords, helmets) impart a short description when found. These descriptions focus on the item itself, but also impart fleeting information about the world of the game. This means that when combined, different descriptions tell a story, or change the context by which other descriptions were understood. The entry below, for instance, suggests family ties and the structure of an organization, but has also been theorized to imply a great deal about the timeline of the game’s backstory.
White Séance Ring
A divine ring entrusted to the head bishop of the Way of White and apostle to Allfather Lloyd, uncle to Lord Gwyn. It grants additional attunement slots.
The head bishop of the Way of White is the guardian of law and caste, and one of the great royals of Thorolund.
This content, literally sought out by players willing to kill obscure or dangerous enemies, becomes the focus of massive discussion, with fans working together (and against each other) to piece together the hidden secrets.Withholding information provokes theories and helps communities form around your work.Click To Tweet
Nowhere is this more prevalent than with the game series Five Nights at Freddy’s. At first glance, this franchise has an incredibly simple story, in which the player must survive a number of nights while being stalked by possessed animatronics. It’s a simple, immediate game – ideal for watching others play, as they descend into adrenaline-fueled terror. Despite this, the game also has a breathtakingly expansive lore, including six videogames and two novels.
The lore offers hints at every detail of the story – who are the ghosts possessing the animatronics, who killed them, who is the protagonist, how does each new game connect to the rest? So engaging was this hidden narrative that it served to popularize YouTube channel The Game Theorists, which has spent hours unpacking and theorizing about the implications of the game’s hidden details. This channel is one of the most popular on the video sharing site, with Five Nights at Freddy’s videos pulling in millions of views, and the franchise itself has done similarly well. That’s the commercial and artistic power of a truly engaging hidden narrative, and it can be applied to your writing.
It’s an oddly specific detail that never gets mentioned again and never goes anywhere. But it’s one of those things that gets the theorist mind a’tickling. Because when I hear ‘mysterious holes in the ground in someone’s private workshop’, I think ‘trap door’.
How to hide secrets in your story
The true aim of hiding secrets in your story is to give the reader autonomy – to give them reason and motivation to investigate your writing and engage with it on the deepest possible level; one where you’re no longer around to guide them. Because of this, there are actually a couple of ways to hide your secrets.
Codes and ciphers
Codes and ciphers are the most direct way to get your reader to engage with hidden secrets, since they’re usually able to see what needs solving. I’ve already mentioned how House of Leaves uses a skip-code letter to hide some secrets, but this can be found elsewhere.
Dan Brown’s Deception Point includes a series of letters and numbers on its last page, offering readers a code to solve. Using the book itself, the codes can be translated into individual letters, which can then be placed into a five-by-five square to reveal the message ‘THE DA VINCI CODE WILL SURFACE’. Not only is this a great way to engage readers, but it’s also fantastic marketing – familiarizing readers with a term that, as of yet, had no meaning, and creating an elite caste of fans motivated to share their discovery far and wide, drumming up business for the blockbuster novel that followed.
This is a great use of codes and ciphers, but it’s still extraneous – a puzzle that complements, but isn’t part of, the story. Gravity Falls: Journal 3 stands in stark contrast. This book, created as a tie-in to the children’s program Gravity Falls, contains a host of codes and ciphers. Between them, however, they actually add to the story through other means. Fans have pointed out that various decoded messages imply the long-term survival of a villain otherwise thought dead, and that one message may even suggest a link between Gravity Falls and another program, suggesting the former can be understood as a prequel to the latter (and in a way that sidesteps any of the potential legal issues of saying it outright).
References and clues
References and clues are a less direct way of engaging the reader, but can be incredibly satisfying in their own right. Books like The Eyre Affair and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen populate their stories with characters from famous works of literature. Some are public domain, while others aren’t, but can be identified from implication and reference. In this way, the authors are able to present their readers with a reward for digging, or just applying their knowledge, and get to use existing characters who wouldn’t be identifiable without some work by the reader.
A similar device is used in the A Series of Unfortunate Events books, where copious literary allusions are used to enhance the character and tone of the stories. These nuggets can be discovered by smart readers, and reward both rereads of the books and the parents who may be reading them to their children. While these allusions don’t recontextualize the story and its events, they do add another layer of understanding that engages readers and specifically addresses the unique needs of its target demographic.
Context and hindsight
Context and hindsight are the most natural ways to seed secrets into your story. When, for example, the reader learns the true identity of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, earlier scenes take on new meaning, and a second read-through renders familiar scenes in a different, transformational light.
This, however, is a book that directs the reader to its central twist; something they’re directed to find and understand. Small moments are left for the reader to discover on their own, but it can be even more rewarding to let the reader do the work. Recently, fans of the Harry Potter books have discovered a potential hidden moment in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Here, one character objects to sitting at a table, announcing:
“If I join the table, we shall be thirteen! Nothing could be more unlucky! Never forget that when thirteen dine together, the first to rise will be the first to die!”
Later, however, it emerges that a character’s pet rat (which is in his pocket, at the table), is actually a wizard in disguise. The table already has thirteen occupants, and the first to rise is, sure enough, one of the series’ most famous deaths.
This moment, however, plays out well before the reader finds out the true nature of the rat, meaning that it’s something that’s only apparent in hindsight. It’s also a subtle moment, not something a reader will necessarily spot, even with their new knowledge. This is a small-scale hidden moment, but it’s one that becomes far more impactful because it’s hidden. Fans can now boast about knowing it, debate whether it’s intentional, and rush to share it for the kudos.
Secrets and lies
In the types of hidden scenes above, we’ve found examples where the decision to hide secrets in their writing has allowed authors to engage with their readers, conduct guerilla marketing for future projects, skirt copyright laws to their works’ betterment, and address dual markets without boring or ostracizing either.Hidden content can add dark or complex details, ideal for a split readership.Click To Tweet
These are all great uses of secrets, but it’s worth considering really committing to hidden content. George R.R. Martin leads the way in this regard, as there’s copious evidence to suggest that one of the characters in his A Song of Ice and Fire series is secretly a sea creature or ‘merling’.
The theory is a patchwork of throwaway moments, strange comments, and interlinked details, and it’s unclear whether it will ever be confirmed or denied in the books themselves. In a series built on myth and intrigue, it’s a tantalizing possibility – a treasure trail that invites fans to think back and interrogate scenes, even as they wonder how it could come to a head in the future. If the theory is true, it’s a masterclass in how to hide secrets in your story, and it never needs to be resolved to have value. There’s as much enjoyment in piecing together a behind-the-scenes story as there is in seeing a theory turn out to be right.
How to hide secrets in your story
Hiding secrets may sound difficult, but it’s not something you have to intend from day one. Obviously, the more forethought you give to potential secrets, the more you can ingrain them in your story. That said, the nature of secrets as breadcrumbs hidden among the story means they’re easy to add in editing. It may be worth redrafting with this specific goal in mind.
I’ve written before on how passing time can add to the realism of a story – how having one character catch another at an inconvenient moment suggests real lives going on behind the scenes. Done well, hidden secrets can have the same effect. Whether George R.R. Martin’s character is a merling or not, any consideration of this question has to assume that he has a life outside of the story.
Of course, you may love your secret so much that you can’t help but unearth it, especially if you’re writing a series. There’s nothing wrong with this – inspiration is inspiration – but the secret will always have the most power when the author stays well clear of it, happy that some will miss it, some will find it, and some will hear about it from an excited friend.
For more on thinking about your world on a deeper level, check out You’re Making A Mistake In Your World Building: Here’s How To Fix It, or for ways to think up your hidden secrets, try Nail Your Character’s Backstory With This One Simple Tip. Do you have a favorite literary secret, or do you think burying content is a waste of time? Let me know in the comments.