The Art of the Reveal

As a storyteller, nothing feels more exhilarating than dropping an unexpected revelation on your audience that you know they didn't see coming. You can see it on their faces, with their eyes wide and their mouths agape and with Greg in the back suddenly standing up straight for the first time all day. It's what we live for, as both storyteller and listener. If you've never had a chance to drop a reveal in front of a live audience, you're missing out.

But the reveal is a tricky note to play. It's like the high note of the Star-Spangled Banner: nail it and you're a god, miss it and you're just a poseur wanna-be. Nobody wants to feel like a poseur, but the allure of the reveal is so great that even bad writers can't resist it's pull.

I'm going to ignore the fact that this might include me.

But you know who does the reveal absolutely right, every time? J. K. Rowling. I'm not saying this because her books have particularly good reveals (although I personally think they do). I'm saying that because her reveals all rewarded rereading. And if your audience cares enough to reread what you wrote, nothing says “I got you covered” quite like a rewarding second round. If you've ever reread Harry Potter, you'll know exactly what I mean. If you haven't, allow me to fill you in.

A Clue Disguised as a Joke

Remember when you reread Order of the Phoenix and discovered the part where they found the spoiler in the spoiler and casually just threw it in the dust bin? Wasn't that part funny? Remember how you completely forgot that part even existed until you realized that the spoiler was important later on? 

That's because we all thought it was a throwaway gag. Jokes are a great place to drop hints because we expect them to not have any lasting impact on the plot. Harry Potter is filled with wit and humor so the jokes that actually disguised clues easily slid into the background. It's a technique you rarely see in mysteries so it's worth making use of in our own stories.

And besides, a joke with a dark undercurrent is nothing but a better joke.

A Clue Disguised as a Reveal

Remember when you read Half-Blood Prince and one of the reveals in Chamber turned out to be something even bigger? Chamber of Secrets is a very different book after reading that revelation. 

The reason this worked is because it added a new dimension to the original reveal, rather than negating its effect. A twist-with-a-twist may be a cliche in our post-Shyamalan days, but it can still be an absolute delight if and when it respects the bounds of the original reveal.

In general, just respect the emotional investment that your audience puts into your story and they'll appreciate wherever you go.

The Reveal as a Callback

Let's not forget that a good reveal doesn't have to be hinted at in order to be satisfying. In fact, some of the best reveals are the ones that simply add richness to the narrative. Did the third hallow in Deathly Hallows have to be Harry's spoiler? Not really. It could have just as easily been his left shoe and the plot wouldn't have been any different. But isn't it more satisfying to know that something which had factored in early episodes of the serial are coming back for a callback?

The callback could be anything – characters, settings, objects – but what made Rowling's callbacks so special were that her callbacks always enriched both parties involved. 

I will divulge an actual minor spoiler here just to make a point. At the end of the story, after facing Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest, Harry finds himself in Kings Cross station. He could have found himself in any transportation hub and it would have suited the metaphor just fine – all we need to get out of it is that Harry is at a crossroads between life and death. But this is also the transportation hub that for six years prior served as his gateway to a world of magic and wonder. Now where will that gateway lead?

Callbacks are a hallmark of serial storytelling and as such they, too, can be somewhat cliche. Nobody wants to be cliche, for the same reason nobody wants to miss the high note of the national anthem. But when you call back something meaningful in a way that nuances our understanding of the present situation, and when you use that callback to deliver a reveal you only hinted at in some throwaway gag seven episodes ago…

That, I believe, is what we in the business call “totally awesome”.