Revelations and Reveals - how to surprise your reader

I've talked a lot on my blog about creating narrative-interest – what gives a story it's propulsive quality, what makes the reader, audience-member or viewer keep with you until the bitter end.

Certainly a powerful way of achieving this is by promising the audience a pay-off, an answer to a question, a final understanding of a fascinating story. Perhaps this is the reason why I've sat through so many plays that promise nothing and withhold the reason or explanation for the nonsense I'm enduring right to the end in the mistaken belief that narrative interest is being created. This has only happened for plays – stories and novels like this I just put down and go and do something a lot less boring instead. Like watch paint dry.

It's happened so often that for a while I banished this device altogether from my writing repertoire in sheer disgust – the reveal, the revelation, the surprise. Kurt Vonnegut spoke the gospel: give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense.

But then I got to thinking – wasn't it cool when Luke discovered Darth was his dad? Wasn't it a thrill to discover the twist in the movie Sixth Sense. A revelation can make a good story great. Sometimes a surprise can be good, right?

But when? What were the bad plays doing wrong and how do we do it right? Time to look a little harder at the whole deal.

Story revelation vs. Character revelation

If you break it down, there are only really two types of revelation that can be made within a story – revelations about the story and revelations about character. The differences should be fairly self-explanatory – a revelation about the story is when something is revealed outside of character – who the murderer is, who is sleeping with the heroine's husband. Character revelation is when something is revealed about character – a hidden trait, an unrealised dream, a hitherto misinterpreted desire.

Ok, so if these are the types of reveals that can occur – let's think about how they can occur, and who to.

Revelation to the character about himself, about others or about the story

This is where the revelation is made to a character – he discovers something about himself he never realised before, that the woman he really loves is not the beautiful socialite but his childhood sweetheart; that the beautiful socialite is not a dynamic inspiration but shallow and vacuous; that she is actually already sleeping with his dad (about himself, about others, about the story respectively). These sort of revelations should not be the sole driving force behind a story because as alluded to in my introduction this won't be enough – unless of course you have used other techniques like dramatic-irony or foretelling to create suspense or expectation in the reader.

That is one reason why those bad plays failed – key information was withheld without creating in the audience enough interest to want to stick around to learn that information. If it's obvious to the reader that you're hiding something deliberately you'll create frustration not intrigue.

Revelation to the reader

This is where the revelation is for the reader or viewer's benefit – and this is where we begin to tread on dangerous ground – because although we write stories for the reader's benefit, the reader lives the story through the characters in it – if the writer is using a reveal just to shock or surprise the reader, not the characters, it's nothing more than a cheap shot.

To give an example, imagine reading a whole story only to be told at the end it was all just a dream. Great. There have been at least two movies I have loved that employed a technique similar to this – Jacob's Ladder and The Last Temptation of Christ, but these worked because we were taken along those journeys with the main characters. Our delusion was theirs, they were just as much bewildered as we were, we knew as much as the protagonists and our revelation was theirs too.

An example where this didn't work was in Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, having read through the entire novel only to find out at the end that the last third never actually happened in the story-world felt like a waste of my time. A made-up story within a story within a story. Very post-modern. Very irritating.

Funnily enough I found this less offensive in the film because the amount of time I spent being tricked was a lot less due to the format and I was in on the deceit.

Withholding information vs. discovering it

The reader shouldn't be the last person to know what is going on in the story, it should be the characters. While it's perfectly acceptable for the reader to know more than the characters (dramatic-irony) it's rarely acceptable for them to know less. Never withhold information from the reader for the sake of it. The reader must know everything the characters know. Detective stories work because we discover the truth along with the detective, or because we know the story and we anticipate the detective discovering the truth and the dramatic impact that will have. Nobody likes to be the last person to know what's going on. That's the other thing those bad plays got wrong.

You see that's what Vonnegut meant – like we must always believe that a character is taking the simplest route to his goal, we must always feel we know as much information as it is possible to know at that point in the story, through the eyes of the character that we are sharing it with. If the reader feels they are being deliberately kept in the dark, they're just going to go and buy someone else's book – and you wouldn't want that, would you?


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