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The Secret Story: K. L. Cook on What’s Hidden

K. L. Cook is the author of six books. His first, Last Call, a collection of linked stories, won the inaugural Prairie Schooner Prize in 2004 when he was 40 and was published by the University of Nebraska Press. He followed that in 2007 with The Girl from Charnelle, a novel that won the Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction; in 2011, his second collection of stories, Love Songs for the Quarantined, won the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. This fall, Ice Cube Press is publishing three of his books: a collection of stories, Marrying Kind; Lost Soliloquies, a collection of poems; and a collection of essays, The Art of Disobedience, which includes “The Secret Story,” excerpted below.

Cook’s short fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, One Story, American Short Fiction and the Colorado Review, among other journals. His story “Filament,” which originally appeared in One Story, also appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 2012, while his story “Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard” (Glimmer Train), appeared in The Best of the West 2011. He is currently associate professor at Iowa State University, teaching in the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Environment, as well as a member of the faculty of the Spalding University low-residency MFA Program in Writing.

by K. L. Cook

K.L. Cook
(photo by Lena Menefee-Cook)

A few years ago, I was teaching an MFA novel workshop.  My own credentials at the time for teaching the workshop came from publishing a couple of books—a thirty-year family saga in the form of linked stories and a more traditionally structured novel about a sixteen-year-old girl grappling with the disappearance of her mother, as well as her own affair with a married co-worker of her father’s.  As a way of talking about the form and tradition of the novel, I assigned Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, an award-winning literary novel about a politician who systematically keeps his participation in the notorious Mai Lai incident during the Vietnam War hidden, only to be publicly humiliated during the election when the secret is revealed and he is not only trounced in the polls but must rectify his relationship with his wife, who later mysteriously disappears.  Among the eclectic group of workshop manuscripts, there was a paranormal post-apocalyptic western, a desperate road trip story involving a makeshift family on the run, a roman à clef about a girl growing up in an incestuous home with her tyrannical fundamentalist preacher father, and two young adult novels, one a fantasy epic and the other a Dickensian-inspired tale in which a young orphan discovers his true identity. 

Although I didn’t realize it during my preparation, it became clear in discussion that each book we workshopped, as well as others we referenced, dealt in an essential way with secrets.  The protagonists of all these books—including Tim O’Brien’s and my own—were urgently engaged in some level of secrecy maintenance.  They were either keeping secrets from others, and the plots revolved around the stratagems of deceit and the danger of revelation.  Or the protagonists actively investigated the crimes and mysteries of other people, other relationships, or entire cultural, social, or spiritual systems.  Or the goal of the plot—as with the paranormal post-apocalyptic western and the fantasy epic—was to reveal a meta-secret about the origins or workings of an alternative universe.  

We were all a little stunned by this coincidence.  “Maybe all stories are really about secrets and revelations,” I said, and we pondered that possibility throughout the week of discussions.  Afterwards, I began doing more intensive research on the subject.  I was a judge for two national fiction contests during this time, so I had the opportunity to read many more recently published contemporary novels and collections of stories than I normally do.  And I continued to read, in my role as a creative writing and literature professor, thousands of pages each year of undergraduate and graduate fiction, while I was also teaching a wide range of literature courses—from a Shakespeare seminar to the literature of the American Dream.  

Rituals of Revelation

I now believe that all narratives, all plots, all stories are really about the suppression or revelation of secrets, as well as the consequences of that suppression or revelation.  A plot is, literally, a secret plan.  Mystery implies a hidden realm waiting to be discovered.  An epiphany reveals an unknown truth—a “showing forth,” as James Joyce said.  On one level, this all seems quite obvious.  A story of secrets and lies is the tag line of most novels, films, and television shows.  But what I’m suggesting is that secrecy is not just the subject or theme of most, if not all, stories.  It is the defining structural feature—its form.  Every plot is, at its core, a ritual of revelation. 

What does this ritual look like?  A secret is established and, under great strain, maintained until it is finally revealed through confession or exposure.  Reckonings ensue, culminating in physical, emotional, psychological, legal, and/or spiritual recalibrations for the characters and, by extension, the reader or audience.  The ritual follows this progression: 

Secrets –> Revelation –> Reckoning –>Recalibration

Many plots scramble the linearity of this progression, and writers place weight on different elements of the ritual.  The Great Gatsby, for instance, begins in a state of emotional and moral recalibration for Nick Carraway, as he ponders the aftermath of Gatsby’s death.  Most Faulkner plots are nonlinear puzzles full of nested secrets.  Toni Morrison revisits again and again the circumstances of Sethe’s murder of her daughter in Belovedthough the novel’s emotional core and Morrison’s primary focus is the long-term emotional reckoning of and moral recalibration from her desperate act.  

Regardless of the sequencing, however, these four elements—secrecy, revelation, reckoning, and recalibration—are essential to every plot. 

Types of Secrecy Plots

Although there are infinite permutations on this ritual of revelation, there are three primary types of secrecy plots. 

Secret-Keeping: Plots in which characters attempt to keep secrets from others.  Think Richard III, Macbeth, Iago, the disguised heroines in most of Shakespeare’s comedies, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Don Draper in Mad Men, Walter White in Breaking Bad, Elizabeth and Philip in The Americans, President Trump.  In secret-keeping plots, the author makes the reader/audience complicit in the protagonist’s secret—a sin, a crime, a transgression, or a matter of self-protection.  We know, from the logic of plot, that the protagonist must eventually confess or get caught, and the suspense in these kinds of narratives pivots on whether the confession or the unmasking will happen first, and what the consequences of the revelation will be.  As readers and audience members, we feel the conflicting desire for continued suppression and exposure of the secret.   

Investigations: Plots in which characters actively investigate secrets.  Think of Oedipus in search of the killer of the previous king (not knowing that he in fact is the criminal who must be punished), or Hamlet feigning madness and concocting a “mouse-trap” in order to verify the guilt of his uncle-king, or Sherlock Holmes or any Agatha Christie or CSI investigator, or the Democrats pursuing President Trump’s impeachable corruption.  The primary pleasure we take in these plots is the pleasure of solving a riddle or bringing a criminal to justice.  Sometimes, however, the “investigator” is passive or an unwilling recipient of a revelation that endangers him or her—as in Joyce Carol Oates’ iconic story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” in which the adolescent protagonist Connie suddenly realizes that Arnold Friend, who has driven out to her house to flirt with her, is in actuality a thirty-year-old satanic figure who has come to do her harm.    

Macro-Secrets: Plots involving a macro-secret about the origins of the narrative world.  Think of the plot of almost any work of sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian, or speculative fiction, in which the macro-narrative involves the revelation that, for example, the Planet of the Apes is really Earth or the ingredients of Soylent Green are humans.  Or to use a higher-quality example, think of the brilliant slow reveal of the circumstances that led to the patriarchal theocracy of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Atwood keeps the narrative tightly focused on the handmaid Offred and her attempt to make sense of, negotiate, and escape from this nightmare, but the larger secrets that the reader yearns to know are how things got to be this way, and how are the seeds of this dystopian world embedded in our own culture.  

The more compressed the narrative, the less pressure to dramatize all four stages of a secrecy plot.  In a lyric poem, a piece of flash-fiction, or a short story, the whole text may consist simply of, for example, the revelation scene—the character apprehending a mystery in a luminous moment of paralysis.  The emotional, psychological, or spiritual recalibrations are implied by the graceful articulation of the revelation.  James Joyce’s “Araby” famously ends with an epiphanic moment of self-awareness, characteristic of the conclusions of most of his stories: “Gazing up in the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”  The epiphany is also a key moment of reckoning—a boy understanding and condemning his own vanity and foolishness.  

The longer the narrative, the more necessary it is for the writer to deliver on all four stages of a secrecy plot.  In fact, the longer the narrative, the more the writer may need multiple fully formed and interwoven secrecy plots, as we see in practically every Shakespearean play.  Iago masterfully hides his false identity from Othello and all the other characters, while simultaneously setting in motion an investigatory plot in which he and Othello search for evidence (“the ocular proof”) of Desdemona’s infidelity.  Hamlet may be investigating the murder of his father, but all the other characters are investigating the source of Hamlet’s own erratic behavior.  In Les MisérablesVictor Hugo counterpoints Jean Valjean’s secret-keeping plot with, among other subplots, Inspector Javert’s attempts to investigate Valjean’s identity and bring him to justice.  The novel’s (and stage and screen adaptations’) highest moments of tension and power involve the revelation and reckoning scenes that pit Valjean and Javert against one another and force the two to recalibrate their actions as a result of their confessions and discoveries.  

Secrecy plots are also ubiquitous in series television.  Walter White, the mild-mannered high school science teacher turned meth kingpin in Breaking Bad, spends five seasons frantically keeping his identity a secret, while his DEA agent brother-in-law slowly closes in on the criminal in his own family; each season is punctuated by crucial revelations of that secret identity to characters close to Walter, and new episodes and seasons unspool from the reckonings and recalibrations that result from those revelations.  One of the addictive pleasures of the British television series Downton Abbey is the way the creator Julian Fellowes cranks the secrecy plot paradigm into overdrive, masterfully weaving together a dizzying number of plots; not only each season but each episode takes us through the secrecy, revelation, reckoning, and recalibration stages of a couple dozen characters.  

Key Questions 

As a writer and as creative writing teacher, I find this way of conceptualizing plot, rather than more conventional ways—for example, Freytag’s triangle, the three-act structure of initiation-complication-resolution, cinematic plot points, the twelve stages of a hero’s journey—incredibly valuable, linking structure organically to the revelatory ritual at the thematic center of all narrative explorations of character.  

It also helps me, as a writer, design a plot, figure out what I’ve done intuitively in a first draft, or diagnose the problems when my plots aren’t working well.  I have learned, from examining classic and contemporary fiction, films, and plays, as well as my own work and thousands of student manuscripts over the years, that structural problems are almost always rooted in either the absence of one of these four stages of the secrecy plot ritual or mismanagement of the ritual itself.  The kinds of plotting questions I ask now have shifted in fascinating and productive ways.  Rather than focus on issues related to initiation and complication, plot points, or climaxes and denouements, I ask questions such as these: 

Secrecy?  What is the secret?  Who knows it?  What is at stake if the secret is discovered?  Who can be hurt by its revelation? To what lengths will the protagonist or antagonist go to keep the secret hidden?  What are the strategies of secret-keeping? 

Revelation?  Why and how is the secret revealed?  Who reveals it?  Is it confessed or is a confession extracted?  Or is it discovered?  Who discovers it?  Are there close calls or false revelations?  Does the secret come out in stages?  Who is most surprised by the revelation and why?  

Reckoning?  What are the immediate consequences of the revelation?  Who does the reckoning, and who is reckoned with?  When and where does this reckoning take place, and how do time and place inform the meaning of the reckoning?  How much time elapses between the revelation and the reckoning?  Is the reckoning physical, emotional, psychological, legal, ethical, or moral?  Do the characters have to fully grapple with the consequences of this revelation?  Have I spent too much time focused on the characters’ maintenance of the secret and not enough time on the money scenes in a secrecy plot—the revelation and reckoning?

Recalibration?  What is learned from the revelation and reckoning?  Who learns it?  How are those involved in the secret changed, both short-term and long-term, by the revelation?  Have I burdened my conclusion with a secrecy dump, a la Dickens, and not allowed my characters space to make sense of the transformations wrought by the revelations and reckonings?  Have I gotten too caught up in the plot mechanics of secrecy maintenance and not attended to the more essential stages that dramatize and examine the ways in which characters are changed by revelations and reckonings? 

Making It Personal

I grew up in a home where a lot of secrets were kept.  My father was a pyramid-scheme salesman and later a con-man who died in Las Vegas, trying to make his fortune.  His brother went to prison for international mail fraud, and my father lived his short life in fear that he might be heading there as well.  My mother married twelve times, and often one husband was moving out as another was moving in.  I grew up only half-understanding what my parents were involved in.  When I was drawn into their secrets, I often felt forced, against my will, to be a confidant, trained in the suppression of secrets. 

Now, as a fiction writer, I’m fascinated by the drama and ethics of characters trying to keep or unmask secrets, and I often invest myself in characters who must wrestle with the moral dilemmas and burdens of their secrets or the secrets they expose in others.   

I think it’s incumbent upon storytellers to examine the way secrecy figures into their lives.  What is your relationship to this ritual of revelation?  What kind of secrecy plot are you drawn to—as a reader, as a consumer and lover of narratives, as a person?  That inquiry may tell you the kind of story you’re intuitively attracted to—and about which you may have something to say.  

2 thoughts on “The Secret Story: K. L. Cook on What’s Hidden

  1. Excellent advice! Sociology has a counterpart, the concept of stigma and its role in identity of the self; some stigmas are easier to hide than others. It would seem that, with social media, however, one person’s stigma (shaming) has morphed into another’s badge of honor (proclaiming). I wonder what Hester Pryne would think if she was invited to the Maury show for a DNA test to find the baby daddy. 🙂

    Three of the four parts of a plot —revelation, reckoning, and recalibration – also reminds me of the B’s of public speaking: be prepared, be brief, be seated, and the three C’s: character, conflict, and crescendo. No, wait, that’s music. Okay, two C’s and an R for resolution.

    I like the article.

  2. This is fascinating and so true! I also grew up secret-keeping and the theme flavors much of why fiction. I like the progression you offered. It perfectly the describes the plot of my novel-in-progress. I look forward to reading your books.

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