There are two ways to reveal a surprise or secret you’ve been hinting at in a story. Well, I’m sure there’s more than two but let’s be black and white for a minute.
There’s a good way, and a bad way.
There’s a way that makes your reader smile and say ‘ah, yes I suspected that’ and feel good about themselves for being so clever to notice what the writer was doing. And there’s a way that makes them sigh exasperatedly and shout I KNOW at the page.
Showing is better than telling, yes, but what’s worse than telling, in my opinion, is when you show very nicely, then tell anyway.
Here are two examples, one from an irritating book, and one from an amazing book that I’m in love with. Both contain spoilers so be warned.
Let’s start with the bad way.
The first example is from Borne, a book I’ve recently read and posted about here. At this point in the story, we have already been shown multiple times that Borne is able to change his shape. In one scene, one of the characters, Wick, enter’s the viewpoint character, Rachel’s, room. We are told that he’s looking odd, sickly and kind of green / purple in color. These are Borne’s colors, so I think–as I’m sure the author intended–‘oh, Borne can impersonate a human? This is interesting.’ So far so good. The character doesn’t guess it, and that’s okay. I know, and her not knowing makes it a bit creepier. She goes about her day unsuspecting, but then later goes into Wick’s room and witnesses herself talking to Wick. Creepier still! However, the author then feels the need to turn to the camera and say ‘It was Borne!’ as a dramatic way to end the chapter. Cue me shouting I KNOW at the page (or in my case at the dashboard of my car). All the impact was taken from the scene, and the whole thing became ridiculous as I’m thinking to myself ‘was that supposed to be a surprise?’ I was surprised he could take human shape, but really, what else could it possibly be talking to Wick? It was obviously not Rachel, who was standing there watching…
Now a good example, from The Crimson Petal and the White. One of the main characters is a prostitute early in the story, and has much unprotected sex as a consequence (it’s the 1870’s.) She has a concoction she mixes up to pour into herself after each encounter. Later in the story she’s moved to a new location, without her things, and doesn’t have her mixture, and is still having sex. I’m thinking ‘uh oh, she’s going to get pregnant’. It isn’t mentioned or hinted at for a long time, and I’ve almost forgotten about it. Then we start hearing how tight her clothes are–why do people keep getting her size wrong? She’s feeling sick randomly. She feels like her chest is getting bigger. ‘Oh no,’ I think, ‘she is pregnant after all! I was right!’ The character doesn’t suspect yet, but I know. Later, with no dramatic reveal, no ‘gasp, I’m pregnant! Oh no!’ or the narrator saying ‘she was pregnant!’ to end a chapter–the character simply starts trying to take care of her problem through various ways (one of them, throwing herself down a staircase D: ) There is no point where we’re told she’s pregnant, until much later when the character thinks something like ‘such and such hasn’t happened since I’ve been pregnant’. It is not a dramatic surprise reveal, because we already know. And the author knows we know, because he knows we aren’t a daft, mouth-breathing set of brainless eyes that needs every word explained to them.
So, there you have it. More examples of why you shouldn’t tell your readers what’s going on as if they are an idiot. It’s very annoying, and makes you seem like an idiot and a bad writer.