How to Pump Up a Plot Reveal

Sat Sep 08 2018

I've said several times that I learn something new about writing from every book I edit for a client. What I haven't said as often as I should, though, is that I learn a lot from reading published books as well.

Last night, I encountered a pretty sweet technique in a mystery novel for making the most out of a plot reveal. Let me walk you through how it worked, with various details changed to avoid any spoilers should you ever happen to read that book.

The Setup

At that point in the story, the main character had a bunch of hunches about what's going on, who's clean and who's dirty, but hasn't found the proverbial smoking gun yet.

Beginning the Reveal

To kick things off, the protagonist goes to a public park where he expects some of his suspects to be present. He doesn't have any specific goal in mind, but is just there to see what else he can learn. When he arrives, he sees a potential suspect who he has not been able to interview yet, and who he wasn't expecting to see.

Observing from afar, he sees one of his other suspects hand this person a fat envelope. Ooh, looks like a payoff!

(Note that in "show, don't tell" terms, the contents of the envelope are not revealed. In fact, the author resisted the temptation to say anything about what was in the envelope. By leaving the question hanging and letting readers watch what happens next, he convinces readers to convince themselves that it's a payoff.)

Pumping it Up

Ok, so here's the part that caught my attention once the whole reveal was done:

A payoff is interesting, and of course the hero wants to ask the payee about it. So when the guy gets up to leave, our hero follows for a little chat. The guy claims to have been fired from the employ of the same suspect who just gave him the envelope, and is moving out of town.

The hero then sees the guy get into--well, let's just say a very nice car--and drive off. Unexpected, yeah? So he decides to follow.

He tails nice-car-guy out of town, down the highway, and into a truck stop where--instead of getting gas as might be expected--the guy pulls around in back of the truck stop's diner.

An SUV pulls up alongside. Windows roll down, and nice-car-guy hands the same envelope over into the other car. Aha! Nice-car-guy isn't really the payee after all!

But that's not the big reveal, becuase now we have a new question: who's in the SUV?

Well, follow the money, right? So our hero now tails the SUV back onto the highway, off onto a side-road that we recognize from earlier in the story, and all the way to a nondescript house.

The Reveal

Peering through a window a few minutes later, the hero sees that the guy in the SUV was--wait for it--a government official who he was pretty sure was dirty and deeply involved in the crime.

And what is the guy doing? He's removing fat stacks of cash from the envelope.

We suspected for a long time, but now we know. This dude is definitely dirty, and we know who paid him off. That's the big reveal.

The Technique Breakdown

Let's boil that down into something we can apply more generally.

To start with, the author has a Big Reveal they want to deliver to the reader. We've all faced that situation.

The most straightforward way to do it would have been for the cop to have gone to the park to receive the payoff directly from the other suspect in the park.

But that would have felt a little too pat, yeah? It would (speaking of manuscripts that taught me something) be a bit too conveniently coincidental for the hero to go to this park and just happen to see Big Suspect #1 paying off Big Suspect #2?

So instead, the author found a way to break the reveal into two parts--the envelope, and the recipient--and to separate those two parts by a good four or five pages of tailing cars.

This does three excellent things for the story.

One, it lets readers stew in their questions for a while--is it really a payoff? Who's the recipient--before discovering the truth. So when the Big Reveal finally comes, we're good and ready for it.

Two, it makes the protagonist work for the answer. Now, instead of feeling like a lucky break because he decided to go to that park, we feel like the hero well and truly earned that bit of knowledge.

And three, it creates a mini-reveal in the middle. By introducing that separation, the author needed a mechanism for bridging the two parts: nice car guy, who we initially suspected was getting paid off, but then turned out to be just an intermediary. Thus, he's a red herring, and so, the truck stop moment where we discover that he's not the true payee is its own mini-reveal that raises our anticipation for the big one.

Make Readers Wait

Waiting is anticipation, and anticipation makes the ultimate reveal feel bigger and juicier than it otherwise would.

So, stretch out your reveals:

As writers, I think sometimes we are hampered by what we already know about our stories. You know who the bad guys are. You know where the bodies are buried. You know what the clues are and where they are to be found.

And because you know all that stuff, it's very easy for your mind to create a short, direct, un-dramatic scene which delivers the reveal to your heroes and your readers, so you can get on with the next bit of the story.

But don't. Hold back a bit. Recognize the revelation for the pivotal moment that it is, and do some extra work to make the most of it.