Tuesday, October 26, 2010

the big reveal, and how i can make it work

 I'm outlining some new books, see, and that on top of some recent reading got me thinking about the Big Reveal.

You know: the Big Secret that comes out and changes the book. Things aren't what the main character (or the reader) thought.

And yeah, I'm working with a Big Reveal idea. No, I won't tell you what it is. Sigh. There's always one, isn't there?

Anyway. Seems to me that the BR (we're friends now, the BR and I, so I can call him that) the BR is all about timing. Whether it works depends on where in the book you put it. And where in the book you put it depends on how much gets torn down by the secret coming out.

There are first act BRs, the kind that start the story. Neo takes the pill, and finds out the world is a lie. Or: surprise! you're the fairy princess. Now come with me to Fairyland and save the world. Or: you know that old ring you've got lying around, Bilbo Baggins? Well, let me tell you something...

Think about it. These can't sustain a second act climax. If the story's about the fairy princess saving Fairyland, she'd better get started right away or it'll be boring. Ditto with Bilbo's ring being the RING OF POWERRRR. The only place for that BR to go is right at the beginning -- it's the initiating incident.

But we can do second act climax BRs. This is what modern mystery/thriller writers do. The hero finds out who the killer is, and spends the third act chasing the killer down. No earlier than second act, or it won't be a mystery. WIthout the reveal, the purpose of the book is defeated.

And your second act climax BR better be like that -- it's the purpose of the book. It's earth-shattering. Luke, I am your father.

That's not only the 2nd act climax of The Empire Strikes Back -- it's the 2AC of the whole trilogy. It's that big. It changes the way Luke looks at everything. It makes sense of information we've been fed for two films.

There are third act climax BRs -- the twist ending. Think Robert DeNiro and Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart. Wondering why you can't find the killer, Mickey? Wondering why these murders keep following you around? Open your eyes, son, and smell the blood.

Brrr. Just thinking about that one gives me shivers. Love it. But the point is that this BR is the 3AC. It's too late for Mickey to do anything about it. He's already in too deep. If he'd figured it out earlier, the situation could have been saved. But not now. Game over.

Good twist endings are rare, for the simple reason that they're hard. It's like writing a story with 2 opposing yet plausible interpretations, keeping everything consistent along the way -- and the twist has to matter. We have to care that Mickey's... well, that Mickey's what he is, in case there's someone poor deprived soul out there who hasn't yet seen Angel Heart. You know who you are. DVD store. Get thee.

We even have epilogue BRs, otherwise known as the Dirty Twist Ending You Rotten Screenwriter. Think you know who Keyser Sose is? Think again. But the false solution's already packaged up so neat and tidy that no one will ever believe Chaz if he told them, and in any case there's nothing he can do. Again, very difficult.

Anyway. My point is the if you're using a BR, you have to look at where to put it. Ask yourself: how much of a mess does the information make of the situation? What are your characters going to do with that information? How does it change the way they behave? Does it require immediate action? And what's already done that can't be undone? What's happened that the MC can't take back, and must now deal with?

Is it a story-starter, like Neo taking the pill? Does all the story's action stem from the reveal? Is everything before it just the set-up? Is it the kind of reveal that you'd put in the back cover copy, to explain what the story's about? If so, it belongs in the first act.

Is it the kind of secret that you'd never put in the back cover copy, because it'd 'give the story away'? Is it the purpose of the story, like the killer's secret identity? Is it the Fact that Makes Sense of the Whole Thing, like the fact that Iron Man's trusted friend is the bad guy, and now he must go and put things right? If so, it belongs in the second act, and the 'putting things right' is the third act.

Or is it too late for anything to be done -- is the action over, and the BR just makes sense of it all, for good or ill? Then you're looking at a third act BR.

And please, please: don't make it the 2AC when it should be the initiating incident. That spells lame. OMG the hero is a VAMPIRE!!! Sorry. You're a few years late with that one. Make it the start of the story, and run with it.

Anyway. Them's my thoughts. Gotta go plot my book now :)


  1. All good points... Question is: can you overdo it? Have too many BRs such as an initial one then a 2ac one and a twist and then another twist! :)

  2. Well I reckon it's okay to have several... so long as they're not all about the same thing. Like, having three or four different twists that tell you the killer isn't who you thought. The Usual Suspects has 2: you think it's Keaton, then you find out it's Virgil. That works.
    But no reason you couldn't have an initiating incident reveal, then a twist or two...