Today I want to talk about Story Revelations. But first we’ll get us all on the same page with a quick definition. In the literary arena, revelation is defined as follows: To uncover, usually in a dramatic manner, a secret that a character has heretofore held close from other characters in the story and/or that the author has kept hidden from the reader. Alternately, to come to a sudden realization of a previously unrecognized truth, as in an epiphany
Let’s talk about the uncovering secrets aspect first.
Learning character secrets is all about learning backstory for one or more of your characters. Most of this backstory you’ll reveal naturally and without fanfare, either through dialog, or introspection, or one of the other half dozen methods available to you. But there are key pieces you want to deliberately hold back from your reader, those juicy secrets that need to wait until just the right moment to give them maximum impact.
And in order to give your really big, JUICY secrets more punch, you’ll want to wait until revealing it can serve either one of two functions:
1. To answer a story question you’ve been building up to in earlier pages
2. Or to introduce an unexpected twist that will send your story in a whole new direction or shed a startling light on prior events.
In the first case, where you’re answering a story question, what you’re doing is building reader involvement and anticipation.
Your reader will feel more involved in your story if, rather than providing a ‘this is your life’ account up front for your characters, you start with subtle hints that both intrigue and raise questions in the readers’ minds. This allows them to puzzle things out, layer by layer, so that when the final pieces fall into place, they feel some satisfaction in having deduced all or part of the picture. Let me give you a quick example.
In one of my earlier books, WHATEVER IT TAKES, I show my hero acting a bit uncomfortable when he sees a couple of men standing on rooftops to string a banner across a street. I don’t make a big deal of it and I don’t explain it, but later, in two other places within the next few chapters, I show him reacting similarly to other situations involving heights. Now, hopefully I was subtle with this, but by the time I reveal that he’s been trying to hide his fear of heights, the astute reader should have begun to figure this out for herself.
And that’s one of the keys to doing this well - subtlety. Don’t be heavy handed with these little hints you’re dropping, let the reader have the fun of ‘picking up on’ the nuances and body language clues you give them - it gets them much more invested in the action, and keeps them turning the pages to see if they’ve guessed correctly.
In the second case, where you’re throwing in an unexpected twist, the reveal is intended to be a surprise, something the reader didn’t see coming. Once disclosed, it makes the reader sit up and really take notice because it normally adds a whole new layer to the reader’s understanding of the characters and/or story events.
You might be going for a ‘So that’s why she did such-and-such when confronted with situation thus-and-so’ reaction.
Think of the move The Sixth Sense. Once you learned the twist at the end, didn’t it radically alter your perceptions of his wife’s actions? Didn’t you immediately want to go back and see the movie all over again just so you could figure out how the writer pulled it off?
Or, if your twist happens in the middle of your story rather than the end, you might be going for a ‘I wonder what he’s going to do know that he knows the BIG SECRET’ reaction.
Think of the Darth Vader’s classic Star Wars line “Luke, I’m your father.” Or of the revelation in the first Pirates Of The Caribbean movie that Will Turner’s father was a pirate
In all of these examples, the revelation of certain pieces of the character’s backstory were withheld until the moment when revealing them would have the most impact.
Hold back your character’s secrets until the last possible moment, make your reader guess and speculate about what makes him/her tick, and you’re on your way to having a page turner.
But how do you do this without cheating. In other words, when you are in the POV of the character with the BIG SECRET, how do you have them not think about it. You do it with indirect references. For instance, in the second chapter of my book, Second Chance Family, I have this passage:
Mitch gave his head a mental shake. That kind of thinking was wrong for any number of reasons. He’d made a solemn vow after Dinah’s death, a vow to never marry. It had been a bitter pill to swallow, but when he’d been faced with the reality and consequences of his own shortcomings it had been his only choice. It hadn’t been easy, but he’d finally made his peace with that aspect of his future a long time ago.
Or at least he thought he had.
You can tell from this passage that something happened to Mitch to make him feel he didn’t deserve to marry and have a family, but there’s no mention of the specific event. Still the reader has been put on notice that there is something here that she needs to try to figure out.
Later in the book, about Chapter 4, Mitch is leaving the boardinghouse where the heroine, Cora Beth lives, and he offers up a silent prayer.
Heavenly Father, I know these feelings I’m having about Cora Beth are inappropriate. We both know I’m not a till-death-do-us-part kind of man, no matter how much I wish I were. And a lady like Cora Beth deserves someone whose love for her will stand the test of time, someone who won’t hurt her like my granddaddy did my grandmother. Or like what I almost did to Dinah before You took her. So please, help me to hold my distance and to not do anything to cause her distress.
He hadn’t asked God for something for himself in a long time - the last time he’d done so, the results had ended in disaster. Would God help him this time?
So now the reader has a little more detail, but she still doesn’t know exactly what happened. You aren’t cheating the reader since when you’re in Mitch’s POV you have obvious signs that there is a backstory issue driving him, you just don’t get the full story yet. And these thoughts feel natural as you’re reading them, not at all like the author is being coy or cheating.
There are a few more snippets like this scattered through the following chapters until you at last get the big reveal scene at about the 3/4 mark.
Now, let’s talk about Epiphanies
But to make this moment believable, a moment that will resonate with your reader and leave them feeling satisfied, you can’t just have it happen in a ‘suddenly it all became clear’, out of the blue kind of way. You need to set this moment up, plan for it, perhaps foreshadow it. You need to show growth in your character that allows us to believe she can get to this moment of realization. One way to plan for this and set it up properly is to have a good handle on what your character arc is. Who is she at the beginning of your story, and who do you want her to be at the end. Once you understand that you can figure out the steps that will get her there, and maybe have some idea of the triggering event for his epiphany.
During an epiphany, your character will reassess some closely held belief or value and as a result, will begin to view his goals differently and his entire outlook will likely change.
To illustrate, let me give you a scene from my book The Hand-Me-Down Family
Set up. This is 1890, Texas. The heroine, Callie, was born with a port wine stain that covered most of the left side of her face. She grew up with a family who protected her by shielding her from as much public scrutiny as possible. Now that she’s an adult, she wears poke bonnets with exaggerated brims that hide most of her face. Her new, marriage-of-convenience husband has been trying to convince her that the blemish doesn’t matter to him and that she should quit hiding behind her hat. He has even gone so far as to buy her a pretty, stylish hat that sits on top of her head. But she has seen how uncomfortable her face makes those who view it and insists it’s better for everyone if she goes on as she always has.
This next scene occurs near the end of the book. She’s talking to a friend who doesn’t sing the hymns in church because she doesn’t like her voice and is afraid it will disturb the other members of the congregation.
“Nonsense.” Callie waved that objection aside, determined to help her friend see how foolish she was being. “And anyone who thinks the less of you for it would not be in the frame of mind they should be in when in God’s house. You should be proud of that which God gave you, no matter what.”
The woman nodded thoughtfully. “What an enlightened way of looking at things.”
Callie smiled, pleased that Mrs. Mayweather finally seemed to understand how narrowly she’d been viewing the situation. She was glad she’d been able to--
The schoolteacher closed her fan with a snap and gave Callie a pointed look. “You know, that was such a lovely hat Jackson gave you before he left.” She touched her chin with the folded fan, “I wonder why it is you haven’t worn it since?”
Callie was thrown off balance by the sudden change of subject. “I just--”
Then it hit her with the force of physical blow. The heat crawled into her cheeks with a relentless sting.
Mrs. Mayweather smiled, aware that her dart had hit its mark. “It is so much easier to understand how others should handle life’s burdens than it is our own, is it not?”
Callie nodded numbly. Was Mrs. Mayweather right? Had she been hiding behind her bonnet all these years, not out of respect for the feelings of others, but out of her own vanity?
How many times had she lectured others as she had Mrs. Mayweather just now on how they shouldn’t be ashamed of whatever talent or burden God had assigned to them.
She’d been so eager to find the mote in other’s eyes that she’d ignored the beam in her own.
The story goes on from there and we immediately sees changes in Callie. She puts away her poke bonnets for good and holds her head high as she walks through town. It’s a challenge for her, but she now understands that she owes this not only to herself but to her step-children and her husband.
Both types of revelations - uncovering secrets and character epiphanies - are big payoff scenes for your readers. Take the time to showcase them and structure them properly for maximum effect. Make sure they flow logically from what has occurred to that point and that they carry the emotional weight they deserve.
So do you have any questions or comments on this topic you’d like to throw out for discussion? Or do you have an example from movies or books that have handled revelations especially well that you’d like to share with us?
And as an incentive to get the discussion going, I’d like to offer an autographed copy of my current release, Handpicked Husband, or any book from my backlist, to one of today’s commenters.
Hand Picked Husband
Free-spirited photographer Regina Nash is ready to try. But unless she marries one of the gentlemen her grandfather has sent for her inspection, she’ll lose custody of her nephew. So she must persuade them - and Adam Barr, her grandfather’s envoy - that she’d make a thoroughly unsuitable wife.
Adam isn’t convinced. Regina might be unconventional, but she has wit, spirit and warmth - why can’t the three bachelors he escorted here to Texas see that? He not only sees it, but is drawn to it. His job, though, is to make sure Regina chooses from one of those men - not to marry her himself!
Can Reggie and Adam overcome the secrets in her past, and the shadows in his, to find a perfect future together?
Note from Winnie:
In the interest of full disclosure I want to let you know that this is a refresh of a story originally released as Lady’s Choice under Dorchester’s Leisure Books imprint. In addition to the hero, the story features three bachelors who came to Texas as potential grooms for my heroine. I always wanted to give each of these gentlemen stories of their own, but Dorchester and I parted ways before that could happen. I discussed this with my current editor and we decided to move forward with the idea. But I wanted to make that original story available again to those who may have missed it the first time. So I did some fairly extensive rewrites, both to fit within the guidelines of the Love Inspired Historical line and to ‘fix it up’ based on things I’ve learned in the seven years since I first wrote this story.
So that’s how Handpicked Husband came about, and it becomes the first of my four book Texas Grooms series.