When and how do you reveal that big secret in your story? All at once? Through smaller increments and surprises? The latter encourages your reader to follow the bread crumbs with heightened interest.
In his chapter on structure William Akers stresses the importance of placing your reveals at the right place. He uses an example provided by UCLA’s screenwriting programme head, William Froug, about an old man feeding pigeons from a park bench. Does he dump the whole bag of crumbs on the grass right away, or does he scatter a few at a time to keep the feeding dispersed and the pigeons interested longer?
Clearly the second option is the better one.
The book upon which the film Notes From a Scandal is based starts with a big scene in which it is revealed that the Cate Blanchett character has had an affair with one of her students. The book handles this information as the inciting incident. It’s a heck of a start for the story, but it does give away the biggest secret right away. The film version handles this differently, revealing the news a little later. It keeps the audience on a string and loads up the reveal with more punch.
In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, screenwriter William Goldman saves the small surprise that Butch is from New Jersey for when the movie is well under way, and only offers an even bigger reveal a little later when the men are about to hit the payroll guards in Bolivia. During the face-off with a bunch of rough-looking bandits, Butch tells Sundance that he’s never shot anyone in his life before. It’s not a good time to let your partner-in-crime know of your lack of experience, but it is a hugely impactful moment for the audience.
Imagine, if you will, if Goldman had started the story by having Butch introduce himself to Sundance with,”Hi there. My name’s Robert Leroy Parker. I’m really from New Jersey. I’ve never shot anyone in my life before!”
Withholding crucial information for as long as possible, and releasing it at dramatically heightened moments, makes for keener audience interest and improves the quality of your story.
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Image: Lisa M Photography