We all know the phrase: Timing is everything.
Most often it’s applied to comedy, but punchlines (and roux) aren’t the only things that benefit from good timing. Deciding when to reveal something to your readers requires good timing too.
Stop me if you've heard this one: Plot reveals are like a good soup...
We readers are savvy. We can smell a set-up a mile away. We can also smell an “info-dump” from 50 feet. You know, that point in the story when you can feel the author is about to present a lot of backstory, or maybe explain a crime or a plot twist.
But, oh, as a writer…it’s so tempting to fall for the easy, breezy, utilitarian “info-dump”! You can see the scene, practically feel your protagnonist’s palms grow moist as he takes his place in the center of the living room, his lover’s eyes fixed adoringly on him as she settles snugly into her seat (and she better be snug–this could take awhile), waiting patiently for all her questions (and ours) to be answered at long last.
Oh, it will be perfect! There will be Murder She Wrote moments (“It WAS you outside the museum!”). There will be Three’s Company moments (“Well, Gee Whiz–no wonder there was a life preserver in my shower!”). There will even be Dallas moments (“I KNEW it was only a dream!”). And you can’t wait to craft them all, you’re giddy with excitement, dizzy with impatience. Believe me, I know. I feel the seductive charms of the “info-dump” with every novel.
Then, just like Pam Ewing, I wake up.
Now don’t get me wrong. Sometimes, and in some genres (mysteries are the obvious ones here), the big reveal is unavoidable, the living room, homage-to-Agatha, blow-by-blow impossible to avoid–and what’s more, it can often times be expected and looked forward to. But in other genres, that sort of wrap-up can just feel forced, cliched.
Because the fact is, in daily life, we rarely have someone’s undivided attention for the duration of a thirty minute explanation, nor are we so sharp and with it (I am speaking for myself, of course) that we can neatly and smoothly deliver an A to Z wrap-up without so much as a pause.
BUT, all that said, our reveals should have a certain panache. They should be well-timed and tidy enough that we don’t a) miss them or b) bury them or c) throw them out to the reader like strings of Mardi Gras beads. We don’t want to show our cards too early but we can’t hide them too long or the reader will get understandably bored, or feel manipulated.
Like I said, it’s tricky, tricky stuff.
So how to know what time is the right time? I don’t know if there is a right time. There are certainly wrong times–and we know those at once (they usually come with wincing and eye-twitching)–and perhaps right times are merely the absence of those aforementioned winces and twitches, who knows?
For me, I’ve come to think my characters know best. They know when it’s the best time for the novel–even if sometimes it’s not the best time for them (“What? You couldn’t have told me this BEFORE I got the tattoo?!”)
So what about you and your reveals? Any tried and true tips to knowing when to say when?
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