Reversals and reveals are vital for creating momentum and suspense in a story. Certain genres are required to be more page-turny than others, and all children’s literature must be page-turny. So you’ll find reversals and reveals everywhere in children’s literature.
A picture of a mountain because in stories, character revelations often take place on one.
WHAT ARE ‘REVEALS’?
‘Oh darling, [story is] just two or three little surprises followed every now and again by a bigger surprise.
– Peggy Ramsay, agent
A revelation is basically a surprise.
Revelation is seen by the audience as motion, even if nothing has changed but knowledge or insight.
WHAT ARE ‘REVERSALS’?
‘Reversals’ are ‘big reveals’. The audience’s understanding of everything in the story is turned on its head. They suddenly see every element of the plot in a new light. All reality changes in an instant. ‘Reversal’ is a term writers use. Audiences tend to just say ‘plot twist’, but that often just means a sequence they weren’t able to easily predict. For example, when Andy escapes in Shawshank Redemption, that’s not a reversal. It might qualify as a twist because we generally expect life-prisoners to stay where they are.
The Sixth Sense, however, includes a genuine reversal because the famous revelation requires us to regard the entire story until that point in a completely different light. The big reversal reveal comes right at the end of the story. This has the advantage of sending the audience out of the theater with a knockout punch. It’s the biggest reason this movie was a hit. (M. Night Shyalaman didn’t come up with the idea of the psychologist being dead until well after his first draft. Though he managed to make it feel very new, Shyalaman was borrowing from a long tradition of Dead All Along characters.)
An example of a reversal is when the audience finds out who A.D. is on Pretty Little Liars. A mistake the writers of that show made was waiting seven seasons to give that information to the audience. Desperate Housewives, the writer’s mentor series, wrapped up mysteries at the end of each season, not at the end of the entire series. This is called a ‘reveal’ but is also a reversal because we realise A.D. was in front of us the whole time. We are asked to think back on everything we’ve seen so far and consider in a new light.
An example of the frustration experienced by viewers when information is withheld across years.
The Greeks called this ‘peripeteia’. A classic example is Oedipus Rex — it’s the bit where he finds out about his parents. Fast forward a few years we have Luke Skywalker finding out who his father is.
A story can have more than one reversal. While minor reversals can occur in every scene, bigger ones tend to divide the work into specific acts.
A reversal reveal is most common in detective stories and thrillers.
But you must be careful with this technique. It can reduce the story to a mere vehicle for plot, and very few stories can support such domination by the plot. O. Henry gained great fame using the reversal technique in his short stories (such as “The Gift of the Magi”), but they were also criticized for being forced, gimmicky, and mechanical.
A subversion is not a modern invention but peripeteia itself; it is the tool that catapults the hero into the opposite of their present state — from thesis to antithesis, from home to a world unknown.
That’s what inciting incidents are too — they are ‘explosions of opposition’, structural tools freighted with all the characteristics the characters lack; embodiments, indeed, of everything they need. Cliffhangers, inciting incidents and crisis points are essentially the same thing: a turning point at the end of an act; the unexpected entry point for the protagonists into the new world; bombs built from the very qualities they lack which explode their existing universe, hurtling them into an alien space of which they must then make sense.
—John Yorke, Into The Woods
The final pay off must follow the internal logic established at the beginning of the story. Scooby Doo is hokey, but did this very well. Now You See Me (the film) has a twist which doesn’t follow the established logic and is considered a failure. It’s not interesting for an audience to see a 100% change of a character’s personality that has been built up throughout the whole movie.
The best reversal is the kind that creates the biggest surprise without ruining the established logic.
Create suspense by providing the audience with a certain amount of information, then leave the rest to their own imagination.
— Alfred Hitchcock
Give the audience just enough to see it coming but not enough to expect it. How to test if the plot twist works or not: The story is rewatchable/re-readable. It should be just as fun if not more fun to go back and see where the writers hint at that twist. This explains why studies show that spoiling a book before a subject reads it makes the reading more enjoyable. The path towards the reversal is more exciting, even though the reader has lost the enjoyment of the surprise. Perhaps this is why lots of stories spoil the ending at the very beginning.
For more on writing a twist ending, see this post.
EXAMPLES OF REVEALS AND REVERSALS
Gone Girl has a big reversal when we realise the victim is bad.
Victimised women who are actually evil in their own right may be a trend started by Gillian Flynn. In the b-grade horror/thriller movie Pet (2016) a stalker captures a woman he’s interested in and keeps her in a cage in ‘the tunnels’ of a dog shelter where he works. Halfway through the movie the young woman is discovered by the security guard. The reversal is that instead of wanting to be saved, the captured woman encourages her captor to murder him brutally. The big reveal is that she is a psychopath and the reason the stalker creep has captured her is because by stalking her he has realised this about her.
Safe Haven is a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is fun to watch if you enjoy predicting romantic cliches. The minor conflict, the handsome widower, the woman who kids fall in love with. The downpour of rain, the first kiss… Eventually, however, just when there is nothing left (because they’ve fallen into bed), Sparks gives us the first major revelation: He tells the audience why his main character is being followed. All this time we weren’t sure if she’s a baddie, but now we know she’s the victim, abused and stalked by her cop ex-husband. But another supernatural revelation occurs right at the end, when we realize the woman who has befriended our main character has been a ghost all along. This is a reversal, because it causes us to see the entire progression of the relationship in a new light — this coupling hasn’t happened organically at all; it’s been ‘ordained’ by a higher power.
REVERSALS AND REVEALS DONE BADLY
The Rug Jerk
Any gratuitous plot or character twist tossed in solely to jerk the rug out from under the reader for the sake of surprise or shock, without sufficient foundation, foreshadowing or justification (retroactive or otherwise). Essentially any story twist that violates Chekhov’s principles: “If you fire a gun in Act III, it must be seen on the wall in Act I; and if you show a gun on the wall in Act I, it must be fired in Act III.” The Rug Jerk fires the gun without showing it first or explaining where it came from afterwards.
The Reset Switch, aka The Reboot
Any device that allows a writer to completely erase any already-occurred events of a story and bring the characters back to a predefined starting point, with little or no changes to them or their universe. Time travel (“It never happened”), parallel universes (“It never happened *here*”), unconscious duplicates (“We’re all just clones/simulations/androids of the REAL characters!”) and dream-sequences (“It was all a dream!”) have all been used this way. To be avoided unless the existence of such a phenomenon is, itself, the story’s or series’ central plot point (as in *The Man Who Folded Himself* or *The Left Hand of Darkness*).
STORYTELLING TECHNIQUE: THE ‘REVEALS PLOT’
When a story relies on reveals as its main source of interest for its audience, this is known as a ‘reveals’ or ‘revelations’ plot. Another name for this is the ‘big plot’, not just because there are so many surprises but also because they tend to be shocking. Although still immensely popular today—especially in detective stories and thrillers. Mysteries are required to include a big revelation, but other kinds of stories make use of revelation also. (Lord Of The Flies: Who is the beast?)
Came from: The heyday of the reveals plot was the 19th century e.g. Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers), Dickens, The Portrait Of A Lady
How It Works:
- The hero generally stays in one place, though it is not nearly so narrow an area as unity of place requires. For example, the story may take place in a town or a city. Desperate Housewives is a great example of a reveals plot. Characters don’t leave the suburbs except to visit hospitals/schools/workplaces which are themselves a part of suburban life.
- The reveals plot almost always covers a longer time period than unity of time allows, even up to a few years.
- The hero is familiar with his or her opponents, but a great deal about them is hidden from the hero and the audience. In Desperate Housewives, the mysterious newcomers have secrets. Characters and audience learn about them as each series progresses.
- These opponents are very skilled at scheming to get what they want. This combination produces a plot that is filled with revelations, or surprises, for the hero and the audience.
- These plots tend to start en medias res, then take the audience backwards and forward through time. We’re not just talking flashback here. One set of scenes might unravel a secret in the forward direction. Another set of scenes might move us backwards from the ‘beginning’ to the source of the mystery itself. In a detective story the plot begins in the middle of the story — the point at which the investigation gets going. In this kind of story, the plot progresses by going backwards in time. The biggest revelation will coincide with the moment of the deepest penetration into the past.
The inverse* of the ‘reveals’ plot is the ‘journey’ plot.
- In the journey plot, surprise is limited because the hero dispatches a large number of opponents quickly.
- The reveals plot takes few opponents and hides as much about them as possible. Revelations magnify the plot by going under the surface.
*Dickens actually blended the reveals plot with the journey plot. This shows what a master he was of plotting, since the two approaches are in many ways opposites.
Advantages Of The Reveals Plot
- The reveals plot is organic because the opponent is the character best able to attack the weakness of the hero, and the surprises come at the moments when the hero and the audience learn how those attacks have occurred. The hero must then overcome his weakness and change or be destroyed.
- The reveals plot maximises surprise. (Since plot basically equals ‘surprise’, surprises are always good.)
Plot in this kind of story comes from digging deeper and deeper into the same world, with each new level providing a whole new batch of reveals, and thus plot, for the audience.
Planning and Editing A Reveals Plot
John Truby advises writers take some time to separate the reveals from the rest of the plot and look at them as one unit. Tracking the revelations sequence is one of the most valuable of all storytelling techniques. You’re checking to see if the sequence builds properly.
1. The sequence of revelations must be logical. They must occur in the order in which the hero would most likely learn of them.
2. Reveals must build in intensity. Ideally, each reveal should be stronger than the one that came before it. This is not always possible, especially in longer stories (for one thing, it defies logic). But you want a general buildup so that the drama increases.
3. Reveals must come at an increasing pace. This also heightens the drama because the audience gets hit with a greater density of surprise.
4. Start the hero’s desire low and raise it with each “reveal”. It’s pretty typical in a story for the hero to be ambling along not wanting anything much and then something happens and they are forced into action. Then, at about the midway point the hero will really, really want that thing, doing everything in their powers to achieve the thing they never really wanted in the first place. The reveals are what drive the hero’s increasing intensity of desire.
Further questions to ask:
- Are these revealed secrets worth knowing? There must be a direct impact on the immediate situation.
- Does the audience have enough context for this revelation to be meaningful?
- Is the secret simple? If it needs heaps of explaining it won’t have any punch when revealed. (“Luke, I am your father.” Not, “Luke, I am your cousin thrice removed.”)
- Have you foreshadowed but not telegraphed?
- Like endings, reversals should feel both inevitable and surprising at once.
- Is this so-called revelation simply one of two possible alternatives considered from the beginning? If so, the answer won’t be much of a ‘revelation’ — more like when you’re expecting a baby it’s probably going to be a boy or a girl. The surprise is pretty minimal in that regard. If you’re stuck with this problem, consider audience misdirection or hint at something different but related.