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How do I deliver a historical plot reveal?

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This question was asked elsewhere by geneaux and is copied here in accordance with the CC BY-SA 4.0 license there.


Right before the climax of my SciFi novel, there's a big reveal about who the bad guys really are and how they influenced the magic system -- throughout history. This reveal will be the much-wanted answer to a big mystery arc, so I want to maximize reader payoff.

So the reveal:

1) Is not happening in real time, i.e. walking in on the bad guys to see them in action.

2) Also includes technical information about the magic as it relates to the bad guys.

The plot involves the MC finding a lost civilization who guards this secret. One of those people will deliver some of the information. In addition, I can use a hologram room to show other parts of the history.

My main concern is that delivering the reveal through something other than live action might diminish it.

What other ways to dramatize the delivery of historical reveals can I use to maximize excitement/payoff?

This question does not ask how to build a plot twist, or how to write the mystery leading up to the reveal. The mystery already exists; there is foreshadowing, there is buildup, bits of info are seeded. This question regards narrative techniques I can use for delivering the reveal other than dialogue, holograms/recordings (i.e. showing but not in real time), and exposition, if any others exist.

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I saw a question I wanted to answer, so I imported it here the old-fashioned way. This is an experiment. I don't plan to make a habit of this or anything, but it's in keeping with the license. If I could disassociate the question I would, sorry. Monica Cellio 26 days ago

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If you have placed your clues and foreshadowing well, you can present the final clues and let the reader draw the conclusion. You're aiming for an "oh wait, what? Oh wow..." reaction as the reader draws a conclusion you never spelled out. This is risky; not all readers will draw the conclusion.

A safer method, but still avoiding the live-action reveal you ask about, is to show your characters reacting. Through their reactions you can convey information.

Your bad guys have been influencing magic throughout history. For simplicity I'll use an example from an "Earth, but magic" world, because this technique relies on readers connecting dots (so I need to have some dots). You would of course use the history and details from your world instead.

"And this," the anthropology professor concluded, "is why, against all rationality, David Koresh's followers were ready to die for the man they believed to be God".

Weird, thought Wayne. That guy was obviously nuts, evil. What would possess...

And then it struck him. Possess, indeed. Koresh. Jonestown. Heaven's Gate. Such control over hundreds of followers seemed unnatural. Was unnatural. Only powerful magic could cause this, could direct this. How far back did it go? Klan? Salem? The crusades?

Wayne shivered in the over-heated lecture hall. This was bad. Maybe he was imagining it. Please let me be imagining it.

Wayne looked across the room and met Guido's gaze. Guido's face was ashen, his lips quivering. Not just me, then.

The two locked gazes, nodded, and in unison, rose and hastily exited. They had to report this to the boss now.

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The question you always have to ask about a reveal is, what is it paying off and how its it paying it off. The narrative technique you use should be appropriate to the type of payoff you are creating. Dramatizing the moment of the reveal may be absolutely necessary if the information pays off in terms of creating a key moment in the protagonist's moral or psychological arc. On the other hand, dramatizing it could be tedious if all it is paying off is curiosity about what the information is.

A reveal is a tricky way to create a climax to a story because it depends on the reader getting to the emotional peak of the narrative without all the facts in hand, and then having the facts pay off the emotional tension that has been built up. That is tough. It is much easier to pay off an emotional arc with action than with facts, with choices rather than discoveries.

In fact, there is a real danger that the reveal will take all of the steam out of the emotional arc by undermining its premise or taking the sting out of the decision that drives the story to the point of peak emotion.

Information is not exciting or moving in itself. It is exciting or moving in how it creates, heighens, or resolves emotional tension. Narrative technique is not really about delivery. It is about set up. You can't use local narrative flourishes to whip up excitement that is not present in the storyline. Narrative technique is about bringing all the threads of a story together, to maintain the reader's interest in the great story question: "What happens next?"

Your reveal is going to work if it pays off a long-building emotional arc in a satisfying way. If it is an infodump that simply explains all the loose ends up to this point in the story, however, it is going to go off like a damp squib. It is the nature of the emotional arc that you are paying off (or heightening) that will dictate the appropriate expository method.

It is important to remember that pure expository dialogue is tedious. If you are dumping the information via dialogue, make sure there is something else going on in that dialogue, some other source of tension being created.

Finally, remember that you can get away will all sorts of outrageous plot developments provided that coincidences and sudden reveals are used to get the protagonist into trouble, but they should not be used to get them out of trouble.

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