Being a Better Writer: Setting Up a Reveal

Hello readers! Welcome back!

First, before we get down to today’s post, a bit of warning and disclaimer: I’m going to try and keep it a bit shorter today. The reason why is that I had a slight accident over the weekend which involved me tumbling, in most embarrassing fashion, over a set of handlebars.

“But wait,” some of you may be thinking, “weren’t you already suffering from cracked ribs?”

Yes. Yes I was. Which are now not quite as healed as they were a few days ago, and have now been joined by what certainly feels like some bruising, two sprained wrists, and some other injuries.

This has not been a fantastic summer for me, injury-wise. But the core component of a shorter post today is that I’m not sure how my sprained wrist enjoys the writing position. So I’ll try to keep this short.

But first, in other news a few of you certainly noticed that there was a new episode of Fireteam Freelance on Saturday! Surprise! Yeah, it’s not quite over yet. Black Site Bora was the big finale, but there were and are still some loose ends to tie up. Once that’s done I can do a big post about the whole experience and what I took away from it.

Now, without further ado, let’s talk about setting up a reveal.

So as most of you might surmise, this post was inspiring by a recent read of mine that was … to put it lightly … not very good. Actually, it was far from it. There were a myriad of problems and issues with this book (which, as per the rule of the blog, I won’t name since I’m ripping it a new one), but one that particularly bothered me was the “big reveal” of the identity of the villain, which the author clearly intended to be some big surprise.

Save one big problem with this “surprise” that left it completely wanting: There was literally no other character the villain could have been. Because there were only three characters it was possible for this villain to be, two of which were exempt (as one was the protagonist, and the other was confirmed instantly not to be related at all).

Which left one possible character to be the villain. So when the big “surprise reveal” came … it wasn’t much of a surprise. There weren’t any other options for the reveal to have taken. There was one path, a straight line, and when that line passed the appropriate toll marker, the author yelled “Surprise!” and though the audience should have been shocked.

But therein lies the problem: You cannot shock an audience by staying on a straight path that was already clear to them. No more than you can shock them by suddenly making a right-angle turn that makes no sense until after you’ve made the turn (another sin this book committed) when all indications prior were that straight was the only way to go.

In other words, this post is a bit like the much-loved BaBW post on Misdirection, but coming at it from a different angle. In that post, we talked about puzzle pieces and how you could present them to the audience in ways that had them holding them upside down, etc. This post, conversely, is more about the complete lack of puzzle pieces at all.

Because that’s where these “reveals” made in this book I read went so wrong. There were no puzzle pieces. In the case of the villain, for example, there were only two options: Either it was character A, or it was a new character entirely the audience had never met. That was it. Those were the only options. And while the author did love “Hey, here’s information no one, audience included, had any hint of before changing everything!” the constant assurance that the villain knew the protagonist made it pretty declarative.

Well, at least half the time. The other half the story would suddenly veer in a different direction that had been assured to the audience to be “impossible” with a sudden info-dump stating “Surprise, you were wrong!”

Again, neither of these really served to surprise the audience because there was no setup for an alternative. There weren’t any puzzle pieces, clues, or even hints that anything else could happen. No branches or deviations on the path. No alternative ideas.

So how is the reader supposed to be surprised when the author takes the only available path forward? Or conversely, completely dumps it and tells the audience “Surprise, you were all wrong, here’s a ‘post-twist’ infodump explaining how this makes sense that has never even been hinted at.”

If you’re thinking I need to read better books, I do. It’s just sometimes I find a dud.

Anyway, so how does one go about avoiding this mistake? How does one craft a surprise, a reveal, or a twist that works with the audience instead of either being incredibly obvious or completely unknowable?

Well, in way it’s pretty simple. You need to give the reader options. Above I used the term “path” to describe the direction the story was going. This is a pretty good way to look at it. The bits of the story you lay out to the reader are like breadcrumbs or trail-markers guiding them in a direction. Signposts that direct them forward.

Where this book went wrong is that there was only one path forward. There were no options. No signposts offering other destinations. It was like the joke in the movie Throw Momma From the Train where the student asks their writing teacher what they thought of their closed-room murder mystery and the teacher replies “You mean the closed-room murder mystery with only three characters, one of whom is dead?”

“But wait,” you may ask. ‘How can I give a reader multiple paths forward? Won’t that be confusing? And won’t the story only follow one path?”

Sure, it could be confusing if done poorly. And the story will ultimately only follow one path. But that doesn’t mean the options can’t exist.

Take, for example, a branching hiking trail. It starts from a single point (usually a parking lot) and makes its way forward, with signposts noting that there are several destinations it can arrive at. Periodically, the trail will reach a fork in the path, each fork leading to an array of different directions.

So it is with a story that has multiple options/paths forward. The reader can be made aware of each possible fork in the path before they arrive, and thus can be wondering what path the characters may take. Different clues may point at different paths, paths the reader can consider, weigh, etc.

Now, misdirection still factors into this, as does a lack of the complete picture (you probably shouldn’t hand the reader the map to the ending from the very start, but rather to the next fork), otherwise the proper “choice” will be clear each time, but before you can focus on misdirection, the choices have to be there for the reader to consider.

How much better would this book I read have been if there were even two options for the “villain reveal,” either of whom, could have been the bad guy? At least with two possible paths there was an A-B choice, rather than just “There’s only A.”

Okay, there’s one last aspect I want to talk about with this that some of you may have already noted. I use the words “reveal” in the title, and reference in the opening the concept of “surprise reveal” where the reader doesn’t see it coming. Yet I’ve spent most of this post talking about “paths” and options given to the reader. So then, you may be asking, how does an author set up a surprise reveal if they’re giving the reader the paths and options?

Well, here we come back to misdirection, and I’m going to extend this analogy of paths a little further. Have you ever been navigating by map or a set of directions and become lost?

Now, here’s a question for you: How did you become lost? Was it by misinterpreting the signs and landmarks you were given? Mistaking them for other signs and landmarks? Until you realized with shock that you were someplace else entirely?

Bam. Surprise reveal. You’re somewhere else completely! In the spirit of our analogy of paths, this is how you can really surprise a reader: By giving them the guideposts and markers to the path they’re on and the path ahead, but in such a clever way that the readers (and very likely the characters) think that they’re on a different path, right up until that moment that the reader/characters realize they’re “lost” and all the landmarks suddenly make sense in an entirely new way. Looking back, all the signs were there … the person navigating didn’t quite recognize them or interpret them correctly, and now they’re in territory uncharted!

But again, for any of that to have meaning, the options and signs have to have been there. It doesn’t work, for example, if you simply shout “Surprise! Everything is wrong and there were never any indications otherwise that anyone could have noticed!” You need to give the reader options, as well as the ability to figure out the path with the characters … and that’s probably the point where this analogy starts to feel a bit stretched thin.

And again, I did say this was going to be short (my wrist is unhappy). So let us consider that as far as we want to take this analogy, and sum things up.

In order for any sort of reveal or twist to work, your reader needs to have options, each with varying levels of viability, to choose from. You cannot just drop a question with only one possible conclusion in front of them and then expect them to be surprised when the story follows its natural path.

Instead, you need to give your audience options to choose from. Multiple paths, forking out, each with their own levels of possibility or clues pointing at which direction the story might take at each fork

Or better yet, through misdirection, you can “guide” many readers into being “lost,” thinking that they’re on one path when instead they’ve followed a completely different one, realizing with a jolt at the “reveal” that they’re somewhere else entirely (and that there’s now an entirely different/new adventure ahead of them to reach the conclusion of the path from what they expected).

Naturally, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Misdirection, laying out multiple possible paths, offering clues … this sort of thing takes a lot of attention to detail and careful work.

But the end result? Absolutely, without a doubt, worth it.

So good luck. Now get writing.

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