Critique Technique, part 13b: Timing the Reveal

No Big Red Flag o’ Guilt for me this week, baby! I’m getting this post up on time. (And writing it gives me an excuse for not getting back to working on my tax return. L)

As I was drafting the last post, I wrote three questions for the end of the piece that didn’t quite fit, but were a nice bit of serendipitous revelation. The questions were:

  • Does presenting this trait in this way at this time add something important to the story?
  • Does presenting this trait in this way at this time distract or confuse me about the character? Might that have been the author’s intent?

Hmmm…good questions (if I do say so myself).

A while back, in part 9, I wrote about timing as it related to conflict. The questions above revealed to me another layer of the writing onion: timing as it relates to revealing character aspects. I have a feeling this is one of those things that many writers, especially new ones and “pantsers” (writers who don’t plan out their stories in advance, but instead write “by the seat of their pants”), don’t think about. I admit I hadn’t until I wrote those questions down. I wouldn’t be surprised if experienced writers, whether they outline, stitch together scenes, or pants-it, do this more subconsciously than consciously, no matter what genre they write in.

But it’s still something worth thinking about: when do you reveal a particular personality trait or characteristic?

Sometimes it’s obvious: if you’re writing a murder mystery, for example, there has to be a point at which the act of killing and the identity of the killer have to be connected. The whys and wherefores might have to have been revealed earlier—as the FBI profiler builds the psychological sketch of the killer—or may come out later—as the killer himself, the investigator, or the prosecutor explains his motivations. In cases like this, the need for and the timing of these revelations are pretty clear.

That’s not always the case, though. Take my own WIP (work-in-progress): my heroine, a medical researcher, has to decide if she’s going to try to cure a world-wide plague. Seems pretty obvious that the answer would be “yes,” but in this case, it’s not. So she has to make the yes or no decision and I have to decide when and how to reveal why she makes it. But there are complicating factors. (There always are, aren’t there?)

  • At the time she makes the decision, she might not have a clearly-formed understanding of why she’s making it.
  • Events outside her knowledge or control might make her change her mind or her motivations later.
  • Her initial reasons for making the decision might be wrong.
  • She might learn things about herself she didn’t know before.
  • Her personality might change: she might mature or retreat into immaturity.

All of these things might be true or might happen. So then I have to decide when and how to reveal them as well as her final decision and its true, or at least final, reasons.

Y’know, this is kind of fun. It’s a lot more interesting (to my way of thinking, anyway) than just mechanically creating a list of traits and characteristics for each character and plopping them into the text.

So now it’s time to take off the author hat and put on the reviewer hat. You’re reading someone’s piece, be it fiction or non-fiction, and you’re watching her reveal her characters’ inner lives and workings. Is she throwing out these bits of characterization seemingly at random, or, stepping back from the line-by-line reality of the piece, is there a reason for making each revelation at that moment in that way? How does doing so contribute to the story beyond just telling the reader about this particular aspect of that character?

A couple other points:

  • Not every revelation will be, or needs to be, so significant. Some details are more important than others. As a reviewer, you’ll need to be able to make that distinction—or at least try to.
  • The author might be planting a false lead. Not every revelation has to be the truth, and won’t be if he’s trying to disguise the character’s true nature, or the character herself is.

All right, then, here’s your homework. As you’re reviewing a piece, ask yourself:

  • Does presenting this trait in this way at this time add something important to the story?
  • Does presenting this trait in this way at this time distract or confuse me about the character?
    • Might that have been the author’s intent?
    • If it did distract me and that wasn’t the author’s intent, what can she do to make the revelation clearer or more effective?

How do you assess whether an author has revealed some aspect of a character’s personality at the right time or in the right way?



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