Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
A writer emailed me and asked, "I was wondering how to pace a "big secret" reveal. My main character has a secret about her family's past, but none of her friends know about it. She also tries to avoid thinking about it so only hints come up in her internal monologue. Sort of like in Throwing Stones where Abbie hints about the day at the mall but doesn't tell the whole story until later. Is there a general formula for getting a reader to have kind of the right idea without guessing too easily? And how long should you drop hints before letting the reader know?"
Likely we've all read a book where we've had one (or multiple) of these thoughts as we read:
Hmm. I wonder what the character meant by that.
Ooh, we're about to find out what really happened.
Whoa, I never saw that coming. How did I miss that? *Flips back through the book determined to catch the author in an error.*
On the flip side, we've also probably had these thoughts as we read:
There's yet another reference to a big secret.
Enough with all the hinting - just tell me!
That's it? All that build up for ... this?
Throwing Stones as an example for a couple reasons, and it's not because I think I did a flawless job with my big reveal scene. I'm using it because:
- The writer who emailed mentioned it
- The book is available for free (so you can read it and see if you agree or disagree)
- And since it's a novella, you can read it in about 45 minutes or an hour.
First of all, when a character has something big that will be revealed later, you should always hint at it.You don't want the reader to get to your big reveal and be like, "Oh, I didn't at all realize this character was hiding something. This came out of nowhere." Because that means you've lost a lot of your potential for tension throughout the beginning of the story.
On the other side, though, you don't want the point of view character thinking about his "big secret" on every page or you'll just annoy us.
The writer who emailed me said something very promising in her email: "She also tries to avoid thinking about it so only hints come up in her internal monologue." This indicates to me that the writer has already achieved a decent balance.
Most big reveals are not happy things - they're things that have hurt the main character and damaged them and their future in some way. It's not something they want to dwell on. Which means the moment it pops into their head, they should be trying to push it out again.
How do you hint at it?
Try to determine when it would be at the forefront of the characters thoughts, and then try to dribble in information that makes the reader more curious about what happened.
In Throwing Stones, Abbie doesn't really have a big secret. Instead she has something that haunts her. When her son was three, the biological father and grandmother tried to take him away from Abbie. I decided that the event had enough of a hook to it that I should go ahead and give a one sentence summary for the reader.
This takes place on page four, and it's been several years since the event occurred:
I pat his back. “Tell your friends bye.”
He looks to his shoes. “Bye.”
“Look them in the eyes, Owen.”
I know it takes a lot of courage for him to raise his head and whisper, “Bye.”
Meeting new adults is the hardest for him. It’s been this way ever since that afternoon when two people he didn’t know—his father and his grandmother—ripped him from my arms.
Lacey crouches in front of him. “Bye, Owen. Maybe you could bring your mom to our playdate too, okay?”
Owen presses deeper against me. “Okay.” His fist has formed into a sucking thumb, but he keeps it at his side. Good boy.
Sometimes it works better to just leave it vague. For this book, however, it seemed like saying two people he didn't know—his father and his grandmother—tried to take him would be more intriguing than, "It's been this way ever since that afternoon at the mall."
Owen returns to mounding my duvet into a road block, and I shovel food in my mouth as I study for my Comparative Lit test tomorrow. But Owen’s dialogue between his cars distracts me.
“No, I don’t want to go get ice cream,” Owen says as he holds his favorite green car.
He turns to the yellow car and speaks for it. “Yes, you have to go get ice cream.”
Now the green car. “I don’t want to.”
Then the yellow car, in a shriek of a voice, “Yes, you have to!”
The cars collide and Owen has the yellow car drag away the green. “No!” Owen yells on behalf of the green car. “Don’t take me! No!”
A shudder rips through me. The memory of Owen being pulled from my arms is so near, it’s like I’m there.
“Owen, honey.” I try to keep my voice level, but it shakes. “Why don’t you have your cars get along nicely with each other? What if they decide together to go have ice cream?”
Owen blinks at me. “But, Mama.” His voice is so earnest. “That wouldn’t be real.”
The reader is piecing the two hints together now and seeing how this event has impacted Owen's (and Abbie's) ability to trust.
To make the big reveal work, you have to push the character to a place where they relive the memory rather than brushing it away.
I did this in Throwing Stones by Abbie having a panicked moment where she can't find Owen at the park. He had run and hid because she was talking to a man who looked vaguely like his father:
“Owen Joshua.” I drop beside him and pull his wiry frame into my lap. “Didn’t you hear me calling for you? That was terrifying.”
Owen wipes his eyes and clings to me. “Sorry, Mom.”
I rub my hand in circles on his back, finding comfort in the physical. The individual bones of his spine, the shudder of his breath, his hair tickling my chin. “What are you crying for, O?”
“I just got scared, is all.” His words are blubbery against my neck.
I don’t have to ask what about. It’s been two years now, but the fear of that day has never dulled in my memory.
And it seems it hasn’t for Owen either.
From there, I go straight into what happened that day to traumatize poor Owen so. The intensity of what Abbie has just been through—and the guilt she had poured on herself when she spent thirty seconds thinking she had lost her son—make it a good time to reveal what happened.
And then this is the big one in my opinion in making this all matter:
Your big reveal needs to be vital to the climax of the story.
You should entwine the big reveal so tightly with the climax that if you didn't do the big reveal, the climax would lose impact.
At the end of Throwing Stones, Abbie and Owen are forced into the company of Owen's father. And if the reader hadn't witness firsthand what happened between the three of them (plus his mother) then the scene would have fallen flat. Not only that, you might have thought Abbie was an overbearing mother who wasn't giving her son a chance to have a relationship with his dad.
I was really pleased with how it all came together, but honestly, very little of it was in the first draft:
Pulling together the big reveal happens in the edits.
I completely pantsed my novella. So when I dropped in that hint on page four about what had happened to Owen, it was on a total whim. I had no idea yet how it all went down. (Actually, I think in my original draft, I had it written as being Owen's grandparents, not his father. But then when I wrote the scene at the mall, I couldn't get Grandpa to make a move, so I had to change plans.)
And the scene with Owen and his cars? Originally he was saying completely different stuff. It wasn't until the edits that I had the idea to have him reenacting what had happened, same as I hear my kids putting their stuffed animals in time out or telling them they need to, "Make good choices and fix their attitudes."
I had no intentions of Lance popping back up at the ending either. It was only when I reread the draft after having been away from it for a few months that I was like, "If I make the reader spend all this energy on what happened with Lance, I had better make it matter in the end!"
My point is simply that it didn't come together by magic, but by effort. By time. Those big reveals you loved in your favorite book? I'm almost positive that it was the same for those authors. So if you keep having to rework the one in your book, don't be distressed.
What book have you read that had a good big reveal? (Don't actually tell us what the big reveal is!)