I’ve Got A Secret / Sandy Ward Bell

A mysterious subplot is always intriguing, regardless of the genre, says author Sandy Ward Bell. In this week’s Killer Nashville blog, Sandy explains that creating obstacles for your characters is one thing, but developing underlying secret subplots can make a novel a page-turner.


Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford,
Founder Killer Nashville,
Publisher Killer Nashville Magazine

Sandy Ward BellI’ve Got a Secret

By Sandy Ward Bell

Whether you write romance or young adult or literary fiction, adding a bit of mystery to your story will improve your work. A mystery helps to move a story forward. Creating obstacles is one thing, but developing an underlying secret as a subplot can make your book a page-turner.

A budding romance is fun, but what if the protagonist’s best friend receives a ransom note for someone they don’t know? Now the love story will include an adventure. It comes down to questions without answers and our job as writers is to make those questions so fascinating the reader will fly through to the end to get the answers. Sometimes “will she get her man” is not enough.

When I took on the challenge of writing a modern version of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, I wanted to stay true to her vision and respectful to her characters, knowing the best way to do that was to not deviate from her main themes. With that figured out, the next objective was to make my story as humorous and compelling as Austen’s. While I couldn’t use the delicate beauty of old English and the culture of ancient British estates, I could create a few extra characters with secrets that influenced the protagonist.

In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price doesn’t spend a lot of time with her father. So in Parked at the Mansfields’, I made the father of my main character, Franny Price (note the renaming), disappear without a clue. By giving my protagonist new challenges, it was easier to modernize the story as well as expand on character development. To surprise Austen fans (who know her stories by heart), I added a mystery: there is a key attached to a family secret and Aunt Wilma is going mad trying to find it, while Franny searches for her father. That was my way of twisting the story enough to make it an entertaining ride and strengthen the plot.

Parked at The Mansfields'

If you are having difficulty finding that perfect twist for your book, look first to your characters. Let’s imagine you already wrote an important scene with your protagonist and a co-worker eating at a restaurant while discussing their problems. But, did you, as the writer, notice a guy at the next table recording their conversation with his phone? Now you can imagine it, and add to the story that your co-worker is a tech-geek, and the intruder is his nemesis. Simply exaggerate a characteristic or profession and let your creative mind do the rest.

Go to your settings, if you are still stumped. Your main character is at a lake, surrounded by tall trees, contemplating if he should give his girl the engagement ring. But wait, there is a creepy sound coming from within the dark forest. He stands to investigate and a splash in the water causes him to jump. The unknown creature living in the lake will help him make his decision.

Another way to find a hidden mystery in your story is to ask why. Why does the protagonist drive a red car? Is it because that is the same kind of car his dead mother drove? Why does your main character like antiques? Is it because she’s looking for her childhood bookshelf that has a concealed compartment? Why does the Uncle always kiss the mailbox after retrieving his magazine subscriptions? Is it a sort of Morse code he uses to communicate with his neighbor? Never underestimate the power of “why.”

A mysterious subplot is always intriguing, regardless of the genre. And you’ll have fun as a writer, too, tweaking your characters and storyline to offer readers a tale both enjoyable and unexpected.

Sandy Ward Bell grew up in upstate New York and had a successful career as a radio announcer and promotion director. After becoming a wife and mother, the art of storytelling became her new passion with the motto, “You can never be in too many book clubs.” Writing fiction became a natural next step. Her first novel, In Zoey’s Head, reflects her experience with the media and pop culture. Her second book, Parked at the Mansfields’, highlights her appreciation for Jane Austen’s timeless story. Throughout the years, she’s called Georgia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania home. Currently she lives in the Nashville, Tennessee area with her husband and a Westie. Visit sandywardbell.com for more updates on current and new work in progress.

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