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?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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