Updated: Jan 26, 2021
Drip, drip, drip… Imagine a huge block of ice melting. It’s been frozen for a very long time. Something is in it. Something that was never supposed to see the light of day. Now it is about to be revealed.
Reveals are a wonderful plot device. Perhaps the wonderful plot device. You can make a case for the reveal as the first, foremost, most fundamental of all plot twists. The tap root of the story tree.
Think of Odysseus finally returning from the wars, only to find his home overrun with suitors who want to marry his wife and take control of their land. His entry into the great hall is told in Homer’s story, The Odyssey. The king is not recognized by anyone but the nurse who raised him. With her help, he enters and slays all of them. Oops. They sure didn’t see that coming.
Homer’s big reveal takes place at the pointed end of the arrow and sword. It’s bloody, dramatic, and so effective as a denouement for his 8th century B.C. epic poem that it’s still a best seller.
The Ancient Greeks give us many of our biggest and best reveals. Oedipus discovers he’s killed his father and married his mother. Leda discovers that the swan approaching her is Zeus. And when Hera learns her husband, in swan form, has raped a human girl, things go even further downhill…
In 2013, a story involving a surprise reveal at the very end was voted the best crime novel ever by the British Crime Writers’ Association. But—drum roll for this very minor reveal (thanks for your indulgence)—the novel was actually first published back in 1926. It is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
In it, the victim’s neighbor and friend, Dr. Shepard, tells the story of a brutal murder and how he helps both as a medical expert and close friend of the stricken family. Only at the very end do we learn that a most innocent character is actually most evil. The novel is dated but still relevant, and aspiring authors should study it to see how Christie conceals and then reveals the awful truth. Detective fiction was strongly swayed toward surprise endings by this book and we still feel its impact today, not just in the detective genre but throughout literature and entertainment.
Even in politics—isn’t every campaign a story?—the reveal plays a major role, although not always scripted by the candidate. The most exciting reveals often come from investigative reporters. Think President Trump’s Access Hollywood tape surfacing in September of 2016, or the revelation that Gary Hart had a mistress during his earlier presidential bid.
Didn’t see that coming…
Reveals can blindside the audience, or (as in these political stories), the candidate or another major character. They can be accidents or they can be planned. Lord Voldemort flashes his sign on the night sky to announce to his followers that he is back again in the Harry Potter series, and that revelation sends chills throughout the fictional world and up the spines of Harry Potter fans.
As you work up your character backstories, think about what might best be held back. Even a more modest reveal than those described above can have great effect at the right moment in your plot. For instance, it sucks to discover, after your main character falls in love with someone, that they might actually be long lost first cousins. Writers have played with variations on the big reveal from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex ever since it was first performed back in 429 B.C. As long as we writers and our audiences are human, I don’t think that well will run dry!
But back to my opening sentence (never forget your opening): Drip, drip, drip… The attached writing prompt (a freely downloadable PDF page; don’t represent it as your own work; do attribute it to the author), imagines what might be revealed at a rather unusual art exhibit in central London, in which an artist has somehow brought in multi-ton blocks of glacial ice. Which slowly melt in front of the Tate Modern.
The intent was to have us think seriously about global warming. But what if something unexpected comes out of those ice cubes? The prompt invites you or your students to come up with a surprise big enough to power a story of your own.
So, drip, drip… What’s that?!
– Alex Hiam, author of Silent Lee and the Secret of the Side Door Key are available on Amazon.