Today, I’m going to show you how to make stuff happen in your story. Duh, right? What could be easier? You put characters on the page, they dance around, stuff happens. Mission accomplished. Except if you’re not using plot reveals to execute all this happenin’ stuff, your readers may end up bored anyway.
What are plot reveals?
Whenever new information is unveiled in your story, you’ve created a plot reveal. Whenever this new information turns the plot, you’ve created an excellent plot reveal.
Secrets, suspense, and plot twists. Those are all the drool-worthy products of good plot reveals.
For example, all the major structural moments in a story (Inciting Event, Plot Points, Pinch Points, etc.) are plot reveals: new information and events that rock the protagonist’s world and advance the conflict. Sometimes a very fast-paced story (such as a movie or short story) can get away with only these eight main plot reveals. But most longer-form stories, such as novels, are going to need far more plot reveals than just these obvious structural gems.
How many plot reveals do you need in your book? Figure at least one per scene. You don’t want too many per scene, especially if they’re unrelated, since that can create a scattered focus. (As director John Ford once said, try to do just one thing per scene.) But if a scene fails to present at least one plot reveal, you have to ask yourself why that scene is even in the story. It’s not advancing the plot, and it’s probably not offering readers much of interest.
10 Types of Plot Reveals to Spice Up Your Story
Fortunately, creating reveals is one of the greatest joys of plotting. Today, I’m going to show you ten important variations on the plot reveal and how you can use them all to spice up your story and keep the plot engaging, thought-provoking, and moving forward.
Plot Reveal #1: New Information That Turns the Plot
The simplest (and most powerful) way to look at plot reveals is simply as new information that changes the story. The character learns about something that affects her view of the conflict, either altering a previous goal or providing a new goal altogether.
In Andy Tennant’s Cinderella adaptation Ever After (click to read my Story Structure Database analysis), the plot shifts when the evil stepmother Rodmilla is told by her informer that Prince Henry will be playing tennis with a marquis the next day. This new information allows her to form the new goal of taking her daughters to watch the match—fortuitously placing her elder daughter Marguerite in Henry’s path, which feeds into her overall goal of making Marguerite the next queen of France.
Plot Reveal #2: Character-Specific Revelation
Not all plot reveals will dramatically change the exterior plot. Just as important are the smaller revelations that occur on a personal level for the characters, inspiring shifts or changes within their own world views and influencing their overall character arcs. The reveal that sparks this shift may be new information, but it’s just as likely to be something subtler, such as a discussion of feelings or beliefs with an impact character.
The protagonist Danielle plays an impact character to Prince Henry’s positive change arc. As he falls in love with her over the course of the story, she inspires change in him. As with any realistic change, this occurs gradually, thanks to many small character-specific revelations.
When he takes her visit a monastery library, she is overcome by the beauty of so many books in one place. When he asks her, “What it is that touches you so?”, she reveals it is the memory of her late father reading to her. She confides, “I would rather hear his voice than any sound in the world.” This prompts Henry’s revelation that he has never lived life with the passion she demonstrates in every moment of every day—and he wants to.
Plot Reveal #3: New Events That Turn the Plot
Sometimes plot reveals will come in the form of straight information, as in example #1. Other times, the new information will be dramatized in an event in which the protagonist takes part or witnesses. This is not a random event or one presented merely to foreshadow a later plot reveal. Rather, this is an event that immediately turns the plot and influences the conflict. The characters do or see something that changes them forever, in a way large or small. This new event alters the conflict so that they cannot go back to who they were or what they were doing in the previous scene.
Ever After‘s Inciting Event occurs when a runaway Prince Henry steals Danielle’s father’s horse and tries to make his escape through the apple orchard. Danielle pelts him with apples, knocking him off the horse, before recognizing him and apologizing. He pays her for the horse and leaves.
This event turns the plot immediately, through the coins that allow Danielle to buy her loyal servant out of indentured servitude—and in several far-reaching ways later in the plot, including her own relationship with Henry. The new information introduced in this scene is “Prince Henry steals the horse,” but it is conveyed as a dramatized scene rather than straight info.
Plot Reveal #4: Other Characters Discover Previous Plot Reveals
The fun thing about plot reveals is that you can milk them for all they’re worth. You can use a good plot reveal to turn the plot several times.
The first, of course, is whenever readers encounter the information for the first time. But after that, the reveal can continue to influence the plot each time a new character learns about this same information.
As long as the subsequent characters’ reactions to this one event keep turning the plot, you can keep creating interesting reveals. The fact that the readers already know about the initial event or information only heightens their enjoyment of the suspense, as they wait for the subsequent fallout.
Prince Henry’s theft of the horse at the Inciting Event creates multiple reveals throughout the story. The first is when he gives back the horse (on his reluctant return to the palace) to the antagonist Rodmilla. Because Danielle did not tell her stepmother about the theft (in order to keep the coins a secret), Rodmilla’s discovery of the event provides the opportunity to once again turn the plot. Viewers understand her new knowledge will now negatively affect Danielle.
Plot Reveal #5: Characters Discover Other Characters’ Discovery of Previous Plot Reveals
And the cycle just keeps on spinning. Especially when you’re dealing with a plot reveal that one or more characters want to keep secret, you can use the secondary character’s discovery of the reveal to create yet another plot-turning moment: when the first character learns the second character has discovered the original plot reveal. As always, however, this discovery-of-the-discovery must turn the plot. It can’t be merely a passing of information: “Oh, by the way, Mom knows you broke curfew last night, but she’s decided not to say anything about it.”
Good ol’ Henry and poor dead dad’s horse—they’re the gift that just keeps on giving. After Rodmilla discovers the theft in the previous scene, we get a delightful follow-up in which she informs Danielle of her discovery by forcing Danielle to try to explain what happened (without revealing the coins):
“Prince Henry stole our horse today?”
“Yes, Prince Henry stole our horse today! And that would explain why he returned it!”
Why create conflict for just one scene when you can use the same catalyst to create the conflict for three or more scenes?
Plot Reveal #6: Reader-Only Reveal
If you’re clever with your scene and chapter breaks, you can sometimes create the impression of a plot reveal without actually needing the characters to encounter any new information. By beginning scenes in medias res, after the characters have encountered certain low-conflict events or info, you can create a neat little hook to reveal their current situation to readers.
A few cautions for using this technique:
1. Don’t trick readers by opening the scene with a hook that makes it seem like something fascinating just happened, when really—it didn’t.
2. Don’t cut to in medias res if it means skipping out some good scene stuff. If what just happened was interesting or plot-moving in its own right, go ahead and show it.
3. Don’t use this technique if it means withholding from readers important information to which the protagonist is privy. Readers need to know what your protagonist knows when he knows it.
4. Don’t use this plot reveal too often. Because it is a revelation only to the readers, it runs the risk of distancing them from vicariously experiencing the protagonist’s journey.
After the monastery scene, the story cuts abruptly to Danielle up in a tree in her kilted undergarments, while Henry paces below.
Henry reveals Danielle is trying to figure out where they are when he says, “You’d think I would know the way to my own castle.” Henry and Danielle both knew what was happening in this scene, but because viewers did not, it allowed for a quick reveal in which they get to discover new information, rather than simply being told about it in a straightforward progression, in which Danielle says, “Whoops, we’re lost, let me climb this tree and figure out where we are.”
Plot Reveal #7: Surprise Actions
Another way to “fake” reveals is by giving readers the sense of something surprising without necessarily creating massive new plot changes. You can do this simply by having characters do or say things that are different from what readers initially expect. This is a fundamental principal of comedy: the scene is set up to roll in a seemingly expected direction, only to reverse at the last second, catching readers off guard in a pleasant (and funny) surprise.
The whole premise of plot reveals is that they bring the unexpected into the story. Their ability to change the plot is thanks to the element of the unforeseen—because if characters could foresee it, they would be able to prepare for it and it would fail to catch them off guard in a way that alters the plot.
Even when a surprise action doesn’t obviously alter the plot, it still functions to alter the readers‘ perception of the story, keeping them on their toes and engaged in the what’s-gonna-happen-next flow of the story.
Ever After is a delightful movie largely because it uses surprises to good effect throughout the story. When Leonardo da Vinci “trips over” Danielle while trying to walk on water (which leads to a second meeting between Danielle and Henry) and when Danielle takes advantage of the gypsies’ promise that she can leave with “whatever you can carry” by choosing to carry Henry instead of her stolen dress—these are both unexpected moments that elevate their respective scenes via ingenuity and humor.
Plot Reveal #8: Casual Clues
This one isn’t a reveal so much as the “shadow” of a reveal. Not every bit of information in your story needs to be a gullywhumping, life-changing plot twist. To achieve realism, these big plot twists need to be built up to in a series of smaller, more casual clues. Basically, these clues are foreshadowing at its gentlest. They inform readers of your characters’ mindsets, feelings, and reactions, as well as building the subtext characters may not yet be able to articulate.
Early on, Danielle insists she dislikes the arrogant, careless Prince Henry. When she tells her friend and servant Paulette, “Honestly, I think he and Marguerite deserve each other,” this isn’t so much a revelation of new information as a brick in the wall that establishes her current mindset and foreshadows, via misdirection, her attraction to him (which Paulette backs up with the sarcastic response, “Yes, you’ve been saying that all day”). Even though it is subtle and doesn’t turn the plot, it’s enough to build a quiet sequel scene around.
Plot Reveal #9: Characterizing Moment
Stories are, above all, a discovery of characters. As such, small revelations of personality and backstory can often be interesting enough in their own right to carry a scene, even if they don’t directly alter the flow of the plot. When one character makes an observation about another character or a character does something surprising that gives others or herself a new perspective, readers will intuitively understand the importance of and be interested in the new information.
It’s crucial, however, to keep these moments from being on-the-nose tellings of character traits. Instead of simply having one character tell another, “You’re so kind,” it’s much better to come at these revelations sideways through subtext or irony.
In one of the movie’s smartest scenes, Danielle is helping her stepmother prepare for bed. The emotionally distant and manipulative Rodmilla catches us all off guard when she lowers her shields for a moment and offers a glimpse of her own inner pain. For an instant, she and Danielle seem to connect when she tells her, “I see so much of your father in you. Sometimes I can almost see him looking out through your eyes.”
But the scene is kept from being maudlin or the on-the-nose by having Rodmilla immediately catch herself and add, cruelly, “Well, your features are so masculine. And, well, to be raised by a man—no wonder you’re built for hard labor.” It’s a heartbreaking little admission that offers new insight into both characters.
Plot Reveal #10: Purposeful Mysteries
At this point, you might be asking, “Where do you get the surprises and revelations necessary to create plot reveals in every scene?”
As you can see from many of the examples above, creating plot reveals is often as simple as taking advantage of your story’s natural twists and turns—and enhancing them through an artful organization of how you present the information. Instead of just telling readers what’s happening, you put a little flair on it. You make a little game of it, first by teasing readers with the knowledge that something important is about to be revealed—and then revealing each bit of information in a way that obviously matters to the story.
However, you can then take this one step further by purposefully creating mysteries in your story. In Write Like the Masters, William Cane suggests:
To provide mystery in your mainstream novel, you might choose some aspect of the story that can be concealed from the reader….
Naturally, these mysteries must matter to the plot. But you might be surprised by how many mysteries you already have right under your nose that you’re not taking advantage of. Go through each chapter of your story and make a list of each new bit of information. When is the last possible moment at which you can reveal this info? Can you tease readers with hints beforehand, to make them eager to find out?
Archibald C. Coolidge, Jr., in Charles Dickens as Serial Novelist, talks about how Dickens…
…solved the problem of constant need for advance in plot by creating a mystery… which had alternating sublines.
Consider the mystery of Esther Summerson’s mother and Lady Dedlock’s deadly secret in Bleak House, or the secret identity of Pip’s benefactor in Great Expectations, who he mistakenly believes to be Miss Havisham, but who turns out, in fact, to be the criminal Magwitch—which, upon its revelation, prompts the further mysterious question, “What did Miss Havisham want with Pip all this time?”
Another great use of this type of plot reveal is uncovering the true identity of your story’s False Allies and False Enemies (which we talked about a couple weeks ago).
Ever After doesn’t go out of its way to create mystery. The only obvious one is that of Comtesse Nicole Deloncre’s true identity. Viewers know from the beginning Danielle is not the noblewoman she pretends to be around Henry, but everyone else in the story is scrambling to figure out the identity of this mysterious newcomer who has bewitched the prince. It leads up to one of the biggest reveals in the story at the Third Plot Point, when a devastated Henry learns the truth from Rodmilla (in a #4 type plot reveal: Other Characters Discover Previous Plot Reveal).
Plot reveals can be the secret ingredient that perks your story up from a nice little tale to a complex and skillful articulation that thrills and delights readers on every page. Examine every scene in your story to discover the moments that turn the plot, then play these up to get the most from your readers’ responses. This is the kind of stuff they love to see happening!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What plot reveals are you counting on to grip readers in your story? Tell me in the comments!
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).