Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Danger, Will Robinson!" Part 1 (Or Story Gimmicks We (I) Can Do Without)

 [Disclaimer: I originally posted this just before blogger went down on Thursday. Since I composed it within blogger, when blogger went down, I lost all of it except the couple of paragraphs I'd typed on Tuesday. I didn't get my post back. All of that to say, if you are one of the few that read this before blogger went down (if you were in that half hour window), this is no longer quite the same post. I had to re-write most of it, and it grew a bit differently, this time.]

Part One: The Big Reveal

I was watching a show a few weeks ago and became annoyed at a particular plot device that was used. It's become an increasingly popular plot device that my wife and I had commented on previously. A few days later, I was watching a different show (this time, with my wife), and it used the same plot device. It's a show I like, but the words, "I hate when they do that" came right out of my mouth. This post is not about that plot device (that one will come later). It did make me start thinking, though, about story gimmicks that I've grown increasingly tired of seeing. I've made a list!

Because I've previously mentioned "the big reveal," I thought I'd start with that.

The big reveal is not always a bad thing. In fact, often, it's quite necessary. Here's where I, again, realize that I need to read some of these Agatha Christie novels I have laying around. Mystery is the genre that relies on the big reveal the most. If the mystery writer has done a good job, the big reveal is the time when the author reveals how the protagonist fit together all the clues that the reader missed to figure out "who done it." This goes back at least as far as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes and is used to great effect in TV shows like Monk and Castle. (And Psych. My kids love that show (so do I).)

The problem with the big reveal is that it's so easy to screw it up. The easiest way is to just make it redundant. I was reading an urban fantasy detective thing somewhat recently, and the author had done just this. I was on, like, page 88 or something insane like that, and, in an attempt to lay a clue, the author gave away the whole plot. I could have (should have) put the book down right then, because it was torture reading the rest of the book. I couldn't take the protagonist seriously, because all I could think about was how stupid she was. I wanted to shake her and point to page 88, but I kept reading. I mean, I kept thinking "maybe, I'm wrong" although I knew I wasn't. And I wasn't. And the big reveal at the end of the book caught the protagonist by surprise but not me. I didn't read anymore books in that series.

Here's the thing: the reader wants to have an “ah-ha!” moment. That's why s/he's reading a mystery to begin with. The trick is to take the reader right to the edge of that moment, but not let them have it until the big reveal. The mystery writer wants the reader to say, “Oh! I should have known! I should have seen that!” It's difficult. Possibly the most difficult kind of writing there is. The author has to balance readers of vastly different intelligence and reading experience and lead them all to the same place at the same time. I have no plans to write any mysteries.

Of course, the big reveal is not only used in mysteries. Authors like to keep readers in the dark. It's part of the job. It builds suspense. And it leads to the issue which is the one that I probably dislike the most. The author leaves out necessary details (clues) on purpose, details that should be being included, for the purpose of keeping the reader from figuring out what's going on. Like in The Illusionist, as I mentioned in a previous post. I always fill ripped off when an author falls back on this tactic. It's clumsy and cheap. If the author can't lace the clues through the story so that the reader (viewer) has the chance to figure it out on his own, the author shouldn't write that story. Or, at least, shouldn't make that story public. Work on it till you get it right.

Of course, then there's when the author has decided that the reader just isn't smart enough to figure it out on his/her own and uses the big reveal in an arrogant manner in which to say “you're not smart enough to figure this out, so, here, let me just tell you.” That's just insulting. Even to readers who weren't going to figure it out. This is why Holmes had Watson, to have someone to filter clues to so that the reader had a chance. Can you imagine Sherlock Holmes with no Watson. Holmes just going about his business of being more clever than everyone (including the reader) and, then, just announcing at the end the who and why. And, yet, some authors are completely content to do, basically, just that.

The last one I see commonly is where the author just doesn't know how to reveal things little by little so has some character or other come in and just lay things out for everyone. Sometimes, it's in an effort to make the story more concise (because it's going to take 200 pages to reveal the details in a more organic way), but, mostly, it's that the author has a story that's more complicated than s/he knows how to deal with, so uses the big reveal as an info dump so that the reader has all the info s/he needs. I can be sympathetic to this one, but, really, go back and work that stuff into the story. Or leave it out.

I'm sure there are other misuses of the big reveal, but these are the ones that I see regularly. The ones that bother me. Well, there's also the “little reveal.” Basically, where the big reveal is broken up and spread through the whole book. I'm reading The Lightning Thief, right now, and I'm really not enjoying it. It's too bad, too, because I wanted to enjoy it. Both of my boys liked the Percy Jackson books. My oldest son really liked them. I enjoyed the movie. But, man, Riordan has Percy just break character, basically, to info dump on me so that he can do in a sentence or two what would take paragraphs (or pages) to do otherwise. It's so annoying! And feels to me like he was trying to cut his word count down.

I suppose what I'm trying to say here is that you have to be careful with the big reveal. To put it in other terms, the big reveal is a way of telling, not showing, and we all know that we should show, right? If you're going to use the big reveal, be sure it's at a place where it's necessary to tell. Don't use it just because it's easier or more convenient.


  1. Wow. You brought up like, a ton of things I'd like to comment on. But I'll keep it short.

    Anyone who mentions Psych gets a thumbs up from me. When I was pitching my novel I did my best to give it a one sentence summary. I felt like my two main characters were essentially Shaun and Gus and so used Psych as a reference in my summary.

    I wish my character's banter was half as witty.

    Anyway, that big reveal is really tricky. I mention this so much around the internet that even I'm getting tired of it, but still, it fits. I wrote a longish short story several years ago and my editor, who was awesome, felt like the clever ending I had bordered on the ridiculous.

    I thought I had laid out subtle clues throughout the story that when the reader paid close attention, would be surprised, but think it obvious in retrospect.

    Well, apparently it didn't work so well. So I went back and laid in another layer of clues, and wrote a whole new scene to enforce it. Now, everyone who has read the story tells me that they figured out the ending pretty early on.

    Dammit. Not what I wanted. My point? I still think my earlier version had it right, at least as far as my big reveal went at the end. My editor disagreed... you can't write something that all readers will get when it comes to mysteries. What's too simple for some is probably just right for others. Too hard for some is, well, I'm sure you get it.

    The writers who get it down pat are geniuses.

  2. As long as profits drive publishing, I feel that the books that are written shall be based on what previously sold since those are the ones that publishers and agents go for.

  3. I agree and this is one of my pet peeves that I left out. It drives me crazy and I think if you are going to use this methos then you better know how the formula works. My son and I read the Percy Jackson series togther. I liked it he loved it. I think if you're 8 or 9 you don't pick up on that stuff....needless to say it was no Harry Potter!

  4. Oy, you are not kidding--it's so hard to pull off the big reveal convincingly. There's such a fine line between planting enough clues so that the reader can sort of see the path you're heading towards and revealing too much info so that the reader will already know what's going to happen. I know I've read certain books where I've thought "How did the MC not know this was going to happen? I knew it on the first page."

    Still working on this one in my own MS. It's not easy.

    Great post!