From commercial hits like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to literary bestsellers like Donna Tart’s The Secret History, no one can resist a story about a secret society. But what makes secret societies so ripe for great storytelling? Turns out secret societies contain all the key ingredients necessary for writing a knockout story.
Every story starts with a character who wants something. And secret societies are by nature created by a group of people with a common desire or goal--whether that’s something as lofty as finding the Holy Grail or as frivolous as studying classics and taking part in wild Dionysian rites.
Now put something between your character and what they want, and you’re inching towards a story. That’s called conflict, and secret societies are rife with it. There’s a reason why they’re secret, after all. There’s something keeping them from pursuing their goal out in the open (like common laws, popular perception, persecution, etc.), so they must go about things behind closed doors, so to speak.
Lots of Obstacles
Ever been on a rollercoaster that only consisted of a smooth incline? Of course not. Why? Because that wouldn’t be any fun. The same goes for storytelling. All good stories have ups and downs, twists and turns. In other words, your character will encounter obstacles as they seek to overcome the conflict that stands in their way and achieve their goal. Maybe a hedonistic ritual gets out of hand and you accidentally kill someone. You know, obstacles.
The more that’s at risk for your character, the more your reader will be invested in the story. As the story continues, the stakes should get higher and higher, until it seems almost impossible for your protagonist to prevail. The stakes are already pretty high for secret societies at the outset since they not only have a forbidden objective but they must also accomplish it without anyone finding out who they are and what they’re up to. But the pressure quickly builds due to their group nature. When you add in the possibility that members might turn on or betray one another at any moment, the tension quickly ramps up.
A good story keeps a reader on its toes, never sure of what will happen next. One way to create suspense is to slowly reveal information over time—and who has more secrets, and is better at keeping them (for a while at least), than members of a secret society?
Don’t forget the importance of setting to a successful story. Readers want to be immersed in a distinctive world. Secret societies lurk in places full of shadows—old limestone buildings, secret stairwells, hidden chambers, dark woods. And what’s more fun than that?
Finally, every great story has interesting characters. This does not necessarily mean “good” or “likeable” characters or someone you would want to hang out with on a daily basis, but someone who is entertaining or intriguing enough to follow around for a bit. Secret societies tend to have high metrics for acceptance into the fold (i.e., highly intelligent, rare skillset, lofty pedigree), or, at the very least, attract eccentrics. Either way, you’re sure to get a lively cast of characters.
All These Beautiful Strangers, by Elizabeth Klehfoth is out now, published by Penguin, £7.99