Friday, July 15, 2016

Tah-Dah! The Best Place to Reveal Your Story Secrets

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When to reveal information is one of the many tools in a writer’s toolbox. It’s crucial to plotting, because a revelation is a great way to end on a tense moment that doesn’t involve a life or death situation. It’s a quieter hook, but effective because it satisfies the “need to know what happens next” question for readers, and works as the carrot that keeps them reading.

But when is the best time to reveal a secret?

I So Didn't See That Coming

There’s a moment in my novel Blue Fire where a secret is revealed. It should be quite the unexpected surprise, so in my first draft I revealed it at the end of a chapter to make readers turn the page. But this revelation sets up another one. One group of folks knows the truth, but if another group finds out, it'll be bad for my protagonist. Seriously bad. Life threateningly bad.

Now, the most natural first instinct is to end the next chapter when those bad people find out. Something terrible will happen when they do, and we all know it. However, since readers also know that the people who shouldn't find this out will, (cause that's just how stories go) having the next chapter end on that moment won't be as big a surprise. Readers will be curious about what happens to the protagonist, but they'll be waiting for the reveal to happen, and they know it'll probably come at the end of a chapter. Readers are used to how story structure works.

They'd be expecting X, so what I needed to do was give them X, then hit them with Y as a surprise.

I did the unexpected and let that information come out in the middle of the chapter, then threw readers a MAJOR surprise at the end of the chapter. Something they totally won't be expecting. They knew it was gonna be bad, but not this bad, with these consequences. I used the readers own expectations against them to surprise them.

When you're revealing secrets in a story, consider:

Where will the reveal have the most impact?

Learning a terrible secret on a day when you're in a good mood and willing to give someone a second chance is different from finding it out on the worst day of your life when you already feel betrayed by your loved ones. Look at the when revealing this secret will cause a reaction that helps serve the story--maybe it triggers a bad decision, causes a fight, tricks a character, breaks up a relationship.

(Here's more on keeping readers hooked through story revelations)

Who will the reveal most affect?

Some secrets only matter to the person they're about, such as a secret about a minor character or even the antagonist. If knowing a secret doesn't matter much to the reader, it might be something that gets slipped in during another more interesting area of the novel. It's extra information, not a "big reveal" in an of itself.

What consequences come from revealing this secret?  

If the reveal only gives away the secret, maybe it's not time to share it yet. Look for places where learning that secret changes something in the story, be it how a character feels, what they think, how a plan will turn out, etc. Let the secret have an affect on the story itself.

(Here's more on asking the right story questions)

When you're plotting or writing your stories, think about what you reveal when, and what readers might be expecting. They like books as much as you do, and they know how stories are supposed to go. Stay a step ahead. Use that against them.

Cause if you can keep them guessing, you can keep them reading.

How do you like to reveal your story secrets?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Hi Janice! I have to say that your blog is probably my favorite blog (written by an author). (And updated so regularly! I stop by at least once a day.) After I read this particular post of yours, I went back to my current WIP and realized that several of my early chapters' endings were too predictable. Which led me to include unexpected surprises at their endings, which led me to a completely cool new subplot. You have a natural talent for passing down your expertise! I can't wait to read The Shifter. :)

  2. Thank you so much, Marie. That means a lot to me. I try to post every day, but I miss one now and then (Like today!) I'm so glad I helped you (indirectly) come up with a cool subplot.

  3. oh why do u tease us so, Janice! *weeps and pleads for an excerpt of the first book else will die very soon*

  4. LOL. Glen, you'll be happy to hear I just found out I'll have that except soon. My publisher is doing something right this moment and I'll be posting a link to the first scene. Maybe even the whole first chapter. :)

  5. This is pure gold!

    I am having SUCH a hard time with my plot right now, mostly because I have to figure out how the main character solves the puzzle without making the solution too obvious, yet also giving the reader enough information to understand the answer, because some of it deals with magic I made up.

    So I am combing through articles on how to write a mystery and give out clues without making them obvious with little luck. This articles goes a long way towards helping me figure out how to set up the twists.

    Is there a specific way you figure out what the readers are assuming? Do you brainstorm it, or is it just an intuitive thing on your part? Is there a certain way you give clues and bury important information for the big reveal?

    Thanks so much!

  6. Elizabeth: Thanks! I just go by my own knowledge of the genre. Every genre has it tropes and cliches, and stories do tend to follow some basic trends. You can also get a feel for what readers might expect by what details you place. Have you ever read something where you're sure it's going one way because the author said or did XYZ, and then nothing ever happened with that and you felt cheated? Those are situations where the clues set up expectations because something draws attention to them in the story. Readers remember what their attention is drawn to.

    I did hear one mystery writer say folks tend to skim what's in the middle of the paragraph, so you can leave your clues there. They get read, but only the most observant readers will pick up on them, but when the truth is revealed, normal readers remember they did read it so it all tracks.

  7. Janice, Thank you for this post. With every one of your post––RLD, writing prompt––I find something new or better to help me with my WIP. Enjoy hearing my phone or computer announce that Fiction University is enhancing my writing day.

    1. Most welcome. Glad you're finding the site helpful :)