Monday, March 17, 2014

How to pace a "big reveal" in your novel.

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of 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?

I'm going to use my novella 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."

With the next mention of what happened to Abbie, I chose to reveal a bit more. (This is on page 22 of a 59 page novella):
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 throughand the guilt she had poured on herself when she spent thirty seconds thinking she had lost her sonmake 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!)


  1. Good morning, Stephanie!
    Great post, as always! Actually, it was perfect timing, because in my WIP, I've been wondering the same thing. "Am I doing this right?" lol. I'm glad to know a lot of the excitement happens in the rewrite. :) And in your book...that scene with Owen and his cars...even rereading it in your post made my eyes burn a little bit.
    I loved finding out that your book was pansted. That's so cool!
    Thanks, Stephanie!
    P.S. I hope Connor and the rest of your family is doing okay. Keeping you all in my prayers.

    1. Thank you so much, Whitney :)

      I've had similar thoughts when working on books ("Am I doing this right?") but time and time again, it clicks for me in the edits. Hopefully it'll be the same with you!

  2. This was a really cool post because I'm reworking some things in "Brick Walls" that will add a big reveal. The agent reading my story (no contract yet) had some concerns about my character's vague backstory. She thought her motives weren't defined enough. I'm rising the stakes and adding past mistakes. (oo, that rhymed : ) The mistake will be the big reveal. Hopefully it works.

    1. Sounds like a great (and tricky!) revision. Good for you, Alyson!

  3. This was really interesting! (btw--big reveal book is Harry Potter 3--oh man...) I'm working with several bit reveals throughout my trilogy, some more big than others. One big one is at the end of book one, and the other is at the end of the series. I would consider it a failure if the readers were able to guess the reveal, or even suspect it, before I got to the point where I wanted to tell them. I want them to be able to read it, completely miss the hints, get to the reveal, and be like "OH...duh! How could I have missed all those hints she had in the book? This makes perfect sense!" Like Prisoner of Azkaban's reveal, or like a Sherlock reveal: all the clues are there, but there's just no way to put them all together on your own.
    Do you ever do those kinds of reveals?
    (On a side note, I can't seem to comment on anything via my phone. Not sure if it's a glitch, or something's wrong on my end.)

    1. Both Harry Potter and Sherlock are amazing examples of that. I haven't done anything along those lines yet, but I would love to have the chance to.

      How weird about your phone! I've had days when my phone and blogger don't play nicely. Hopefully the issue will sort itself out.

    2. From Amo Libros:
      I was just thinking about HP book 3. Book 7 has some really good reveals too, some of which I suspected in part, but not on the scale they turned out to be.

  4. Thank you for such a wonderful post, Mrs. Morrill! Very enjoyable, interesting, and helpful. :) Francine Rivers does an awesome job with laying down hints, keeping the reader turning the pages, until she reveals it, in her novel, The Last Sin Eater. In the first book of my series, I tried to lay down lots of hints to lead up to the reveal . . . Need to work on something like that for the second book in the series though. ;)


    1. Yes, with a series if you do something cool like that for book one, you'll want it for the other books too. And normally the reveals increase in complexity and stakes, so that's something to keep in mind as well. Lots of hard work but a great reward for your readers!

  5. Thanks so much Ms. Stephanie! I was just struggling with this the other day when I was writing! What a wonderful blog post! There is a big reveal coming up shortly in my story, but I only hinted to it in the previous two chapters. I'm kind of worried that I didn't give the hint enough time to boil over, but I know that I have to make a reveal in the next chapter. Is there anyway that I could make the readers curiosity stronger in a shorter period of time? Again, thanks so much for such a wonderful post, Ms. Stephanie!!!
    -Emily Kapuscak :)

    1. I think your best chance of making that effective is by dropping new and interesting information into each one of your hints. Hopefully that works!

  6. Great post, super helpful! thanks! :)

  7. This is really great advice, Stephanie, and something I've been wondering about for a long time. First off, I haven't read the Skylar Hoyt series so I didn't read Throwing Stones, but the excerpts you have here really pulled my heartstrings. It sounds amazing and I love the ice cream scene. :)

    Second, I think that one thing writers should ask themselves before plotting a big reveal is, what would happen if this happened now or if the character knew about this right now? I'm such a fan of big reveals in novels that I tend to want to save everything for the last minute. I've found that by giving my protagonist more information and making things happen sooner rather than later, I've increased tension while still saving the biggest reveal of them all. It's also a way I write myself out of ruts. If I'm ever stuck, I'll just let my character know something and it tends to get me un-stuck.

    Again, great post! I look forward to reading Throwing Stones and the Skylar series as soon as I can.

    1. That's a fabulous point, Anastasia. You're right. Sometimes we hold things back when we need to just - as writer Rachel Hauck says - "drop the bomb" and deal with what's left. I'm so glad you brought that up.

  8. Loved this post Stephanie, thank you for that! Do you think the big reveal always have to come from the side of the POV/main character? Or can it be say things that the other characters have kept for so long from the MC and that is the bomb that drops on the MC?

    1. What a great question Arlette! No, I don't think it has to be from the POV character. Thanks for bringing that up!

  9. This is so how I do things: dropping in hints that I'm not positive what they're going to work out to be and then later on discovering the "truths" behind them.

    1. Sounds very similar to what I find myself doing too. It's so fun :)

  10. Yes! Thank you so much, Stephanie! This is perfect. I can tell I'm going to be referring to this one a lot. And I'm glad you think I'm kind of in the right place :)

    Just one question: When the big reveal actually happens, should it be maybe 2/3 of the way through the story? Or halfway? And is it okay if other stuff happens between it and the conclusion as long as the climax still has to do with the reveal?

    1. I think somewhere between halfway to 2/3 is a good place for the big reveal. There needs to be sufficient time for us to see the fall-out or consequences of it. Great question! Glad the post was helpful :)

  11. Thanks for this great post! Now I feel like I might actually be doing my big reveal right. lol.
    Every Artemis Fowl book is really brilliant as far as unexpected twists and reveals. I just finished The Time Paradox, and the way Eoin Colfer unfolded the plot was positively genius.

    Alexa Skrywer

    1. Hooray! It's so great when we find out we're doing something right :)

  12. A good "big reveal" is in First Date by Krista McGee. There it's the story of her childhood and her parents' deaths. I haven't done the big reveal in my story yet, but I love the idea that I have for it. :)

    1. Oops! Not Krista McGee's childhood, as I made it sound, but the main character's.

    2. From Amo Libros:
      I knew what you meant, which is kind of eerie. I actually had to reread your sentence to figure out what you were correcting.

  13. Exactly - thank you! Definitely something to keep in mind. :)

    Mrs. Morrill, this is rather off-topic, but I'm curious about co-authoring; how to do it, etc. Is there perhaps a post on that? Thank you!


    1. Sure! The giveaway is closed now, but I talk about it here:

    2. Thank you very much! The article was definitely a blessing, and had some wonderful points in it. I'm going to pass it on to my dear friend - we've been praying and thinking about co-authoring together. :) Thank you again, Mrs. Morrill!


  14. I definitely had to work on this when I was writing my steampunk youth adventure book The Time Racers, which is a newly finished manuscript! Thanks for the tips! Do you think the principles are the same with a big reveal at the end of a series vs. the end of a book?

  15. I hint at mine by having some one walk by who knows. The character momentarily panics when the person walks by until her friends disguises her.

  16. All of the Harry Potter books had wonderful big reveals--the third book especially took me by surprise.

  17. This was another great post as usual :)

    It was nice to see I'm probably doing this right in my writing. :)

  18. Great article, Stephanie!

    Personally, I love bog reveals that happen in the end when yoi as the reader believe you already knew the truth but are eventually still taken by surprise. ,,Mindspeak" is a beautiful example of such a novel, I even wrote on my blog about it to feature some of my favorite tips about how to include a big reveal in your novel.

    Iam totally gettimg a copy of Throwing Stones now, so looking forward to taking a look at it!

    Great job, Marie

  19. My character is a foster child moving around from house to house, and what the reader wants to find out is why she is a foster child. I've wrote she has been a foster child since she was nine, and when a new foster mom meets her, my character July is worried she is going to ask THE QUESTION, which is actually why are you a foster child.