You’re crafting a story, trying to figure out what will take it to “the next level,” and assuming you have great characters, an engaging plot, a resonating theme, and wide audience appeal, you may dig deep into the toolbox and pull out a great story reveal.
You’ve all heard Hitchcock’s teaching on suspense: a bomb under the table as two people eat. The bomb explodes. That’s surprise. If we reveal to the audience the bomb is there, that creates suspense as we wait for the characters to catch up.
That’s short shrift for our surprise technique. The real trick is to:
- Establish MYSTERY. That is, invest the characters in the possibility of a bomb.
- The more hidden the setup, the more gratifying the reveal.
- Reveals are important for the hero (character arc), or for the audience (plot), or both. Never neither.
Then the surprise works. A truly great reveal is called a “rug-pull” (thanks William C. Martell!) since it overturns everything you know about the story up until that point.
But where do you put it?
It’s important that this reveal pay off the story journey. If things work thematically but it doesn’t turn the story then it fails:
- Book of Eli: His blindness shows he “walks by faith” but it doesn’t change our perception of the journey. Thus, it was wasn’t as strong as needed.
Contrast that to some great denouement reveals:
- No Way Out: Costner plays an agent trying to ferret out a mole in the Pentagon, told to follow clues that will reveal – not the mole – but his secret relationship with the dead girl. This use of misdirection puts us on Costner’s side as he tries to get out of hot water, turn the tables on the corrupt politician that’s setting him up. His success is earned, but it all conceals the fact we forgot, that… He really IS the mole!
- The Usual Suspects: A tough cop bullies a soon-to-be-released suspect Verbal into confessing that his friend Keaton is the leader of a group of thugs on a crime spree. But Verbal tells him a different story, of hapless thugs sucked into a vortex of criminality by an evil master criminal, Keyser Soze. The red herring of convincing the cop that Keaton is Soze is so strong that we overlook the fact that Verbal is a confidence man and that HE is Soze.
- The Sixth Sense: Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe tries to help a disturbed child who says he can see dead people. Well, the kid CAN see dead people, and after restoring balance to various dead folk who don’t know they’re dead, we’re lulled into forgetting the obvious premise, that Malcolm is ALSO dead.
- The Road Warrior: Max’s oil truck revealed to be full of dirt. He led the bad guys away so the villagers could escape with the fuel in smaller cars. This makes him a sacrificial hero. It’s also ironic since Max DIDN’T KNOW the deception.
Most surprises that go off in Act 3 climax are merely plot moments. Both Quigley Down Under and The Rundown employ the weak setup of heroes with “no need for guns” (a beat stolen from Shane, probably). It’s weak because we KNOW they will be forced to use the gun later. We anticipate that they’ll be awesome with it, so the satisfaction of the reveal is diminished.
Better examples are plot driven thrillers like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Thin Man and other whodunits, satisfying the audience for plot, but not the protagonist who has already arced, if he ever does.
The Empire Strikes Back: Yes, for all you sci-fi guys out there, “Luke, I AM your father” is the most famous, Act 3 climax rug-pull ever since it overturns not only that movie, but the previous one as well.
In the first part of act 3 (in a 12 Sequence model) reveals must be strong enough to force your hero to arc, because that is its purpose. Otherwise, it feels like a “deus ex machina.”
- Contact, the plot reveal of a second machine helps the story forward (with a mix of cheers and groans from the audience), while Ellie doesn’t arc until the story climax in the final conversation with the aliens.
In my Templar script, the Act 2 climax leaves Elias despondent, a true low point from which he should never recover. So revealing the great secret of the Templar order in Sequence 10 allows him to arc morally, restoring him for the final battle.
Act 2 Climax
Many reveals fall at the Act 2 climax (sequence 9), allowing this low point to cause the character arc. Thrillers put big reveals here, typically when a traitor is revealed.
- The Guns of Navarone, our heroes discover that the mute girl is a spy
- Monsters Inc, Waternoose reveals himself the true antagonist as he pushes our heroes into the Himalayas
- Iron Man: Obadiah Stane reveals himself the true antagonist by sandbagging Tony and taking his power source
Yes, romcoms predicated on the guy (it’s always the guy) tricking his way into the relationship, will have the deception revealed at the Act 2 climax, where “all is lost” and the relationship crashes.
These are not true reveals since the audience is in on the deception. So, in this obligatory scene, the audiences yawn while the protagonist accepts his culpability, learns to love and goes on to win the girl.
But what if we use this obligatory romcom beat to surprise the audience with something else? That would be worth seeing.
Some reveals work best just before the Act 2 climax in order to hurl our heroes toward the abyss.
- Minority Report is one example, but we feel it coming because it’s a beat stolen from the FAR superior…
- LA Confidential: Sequence 8 puts Jack and Ed together to reopen the Night Owl case. Why? Because Rollo Tomasi, that’s why! It ends with Dudley shooting Jack, revealing himself as the true antagonist, and with Jack setting up Dudley with his valediction: “Rollo Tomasi”
Thrillers also use sequence six to “up the stakes.” It’s called the “close/open” thriller, where the hero discovers the identity of the true antagonist.
- Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie realizes her uncle is the serial killer
- Inception, Ariadne discovers the reason Cobb can’t architect or know the plan is that he’s keeping Mal alive in his memories
- Casino Royale, Le Chiffre’s “tell” becomes a trick to fool Bond and he wipes out Bond at cards
- Twilight Samurai, our passive hero reveals that he’s actually a GREAT swordsman
- Seven Samurai, Kikuchiyo admits his true birth, that he’s actually not a born samurai but an orphan from a poor farm
Can you effectively reveal BEFORE the midpoint?
War of the Arrows is about Nam-Yi an orphan who uses his archery skills to save his sister from a marauding Manchurians. It starts with his father giving him the family bow and telling him to protect his sister. The father is killed and his children are marked as traitors to the government. So under his uncle’s thumb, Nam-Yi grows up sullen, prone to drunkenness and quarreling, not taking his studies seriously, by anyone’s standards. He’s such a screw up that his uncle decides to give the sister away at her marriage. The sister even visits Nam-Yi at archery practice and hits the target Nam-Yi consistently misses.
As the marriage commences, Nam-Yi packs up, intending to just disappear, not noticing the Manchurians invading, not hearing the screams from the ceremony. He goes to his targets, pulls out his sister’s arrow.
Then walks around the target to reveal…
Another target completely BURIED IN ARROWS!
He had spent his years not studying to shoot straight as others wanted – he taught himself how to shoot around corners! He went straight from zero to superhero in the audience’s mind, in one profound beat that set the stage for the rest of the movie.
Beware the Cascading Reveal
No one talks about this but it still bears mentioning. Each reveal should establish more questions, extend the mystery or drop us another level into the character’s mind (see, Inception). Mystery stories do this intentionally, with small reveals that turn heroes in different directions, set up red herrings and build anticipation for the final battle.
But if your surprises are all tied together and you store them up until the end – which is exhausting and potentially confusing for the audience – once you start to reveal, your audience can get ahead of the writing.
- Lucky Number Sleven: once we grasp Top Cat’s mission, we know who Sleven is and the ducks line up for the audience several minutes before the writers finish the movie.
That’s why most writers deliver one big reveal in the denouement. Then the audience is left to figure out the implausibilities on the ride home:
- Sixth Sense, the reveal tricks the audience, but wouldn’t Malcolm realize somewhere that NO ONE ELSE is talking to him? How does he get to the restaurant, his house, etc?
- Time travel movies like Back to the Future, where the past changes the future into a new, permanent reality of which the protagonist should have no recollection.
You know these. Mysteries in which we bounce between suspense and surprise, keeping the audience on a wild ride:
- Indiana Jones movies. “The headpiece is two sided! Their staff is too tall!… Marion, you’re alive!… What truck?” Etc.
- Dog Day Afternoon uses several reveals to deepen the character motivations that inspire the robbery. Each step isn’t big, but pushes us into weirder and weirder territory: they robbed the bank because “That’s where the money” to “Attica” to the nagging wife, then all the way to his gay lover’s sex operation. Wait, what?
In my Imperial Dragons script, I use multiple reveals, each one drawing deeper into their hidden objectives and fears, and closer to the true relationship these creatures have with humanity. The result should be something that could spawn multiple sequels.
What are your best reveals?