Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Hi, everyone, and welcome to post #5 in my “Plotting Your Story” series:
Plotting Your Story, Step #5: Revelations!
Every good story has a backstory, but the secret to strong writing is realizing that there are parts of that backstory that the reader need never see.
In the world of writing, this is called “Iceberg Theory,” the concept that readers only ever see a fraction of what you build into the framework of your story. The rest of it remains beneath the surface. “Why waste time building information and details that readers will never see?” you might ask. Because even though the reader may never know it, it is important that you know it.
As Hemingway himself once said:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon
It may seem strange to spend time developing backstories, geographical details, customs, and cultures that the readers will only ever see a glimpse of… but in my experience, knowing those things makes it possible to write with depth. You may not be telling the reader all those things, but they can feel that they are there, like the giant bulk of iceberg hovering beneath the surface. It makes your story world feel grounded — real.
Though I’ve sometimes lamented spending seemingly-wasted time on writing character backstories, some of the most helpful exercises I’ve ever done for my writing actually landed in this category. Even the false-start first drafts I spent writing The Edge of Nothing in a dozen different ways from a variety of different character’s POVs and at different points in the timeline ended up being both necessary — for me to grasp my world and characters better — and useful. So many times I was thankful for having taken the time to do that, because it informed me on my characters, my world, and the plot events in ways I’d never anticipated. In writing, nothing is wasted.
But okay, so we’ve got seven-eighths of an iceberg’s worth of worldbuilding and story floating beneath the surface, but what about that other one-eighth, the part that readers actually need to know?
That’s where the Revelations come in.
Revelations is the term I’m giving to those things that, after careful consideration, you’ve decided actually do belong in that sacred one-eighth of information that needs to be shown to readers. Info that is vital to making the story make sense, or that genuinely lessens the story if it’s missing. Here are the basic criteria I use:
Is it relevant?
Is it significant?
Is it impactful?
Some info seems important, when in reality it makes little to no emotional impact on the story or the reader. Some is emotionally impactful, but actually irrelevant to what’s happening at the moment (yes, I’m sorry your cat died, but… it has zero relation to anything that’s happening right now, so… why are you telling me now?). And some might be technically relevant (okay, so your cat dying made you cry for days), and impactful (that’s totally sad, really it is), but… is it truly significant? Does the reader need to know that information? Give me a guy whose dying cat left him with a fear of death and dead bodies that is crippling his courage to face his own mortality and to march to war to protect the ones he loves, and now we’re in business. I love cats, but the grief of losing a pet on its own isn’t enough to make it important enough to drop into the story. Unless it is. It just needs to fit and make sense.
Strive to make sure that each piece of info you’re giving the reader is all three criteria: relevant, significant, and impactful. This way you can be sure you’ve got the correct chunk of the iceberg showing, and not the part that should’ve been left at the bottom of the ocean.
Most writers can filter down what needs to be truly revealed, but often they then struggle with how.
We all know info-dumps are bad. (If you didn’t know that, well, info-dumps are bad.) Dropping a whole bunch of info all at once monologue-style — or overbearing narrator style — can very quickly bore the reader and break them from the flow of your story.
There are other “no’s” accepted as general rules in fiction-writing, too: breaking your established POV to drop information your character wouldn’t know; using character dialogue to state information that your characters already would know and have no reason to state out loud; random soliloquies that don’t fit the character’s emotional progression just to inform the reader what the character has been through in the past; clumsy flashbacks or dream sequences that feel gimmicky and disrupt the story’s narrative.
So if there are so many ways not to drop info, then how in the world do you do it?
In a way the reader doesn’t notice it, ideally. It’s not that you can’t use any of the above-listed things, it’s that you need to use them carefully, intentionally, and at the right time.
Revelations are meant to help with that.
The concept is simple...
I make a list of things that I know I need to reveal, for example:
Important backstory elements that impact character dynamics
Vital world-building details
Important information about other characters or events, etc., that the character (and reader) will need to learn along the way.
Then I break these into two separate lists:
Things my character needs to discover
Things my character already knows but I need to reveal to the reader and/or other characters
Once you have these lists, it’s as simple as looking for the right moments to drop them into the story, where they naturally flow from dialogue or events, without jumping up and screaming, “Look at me, I’m an info-dump!”
Okay, so… maybe it’s not entirely simple, but… right now what you need are the lists. We’ll talk more about putting them to use and actually figuring out where and how to drop this info in next week’s post on Detailed Outlines.
(because I’m not actually your teacher and I can’t make you, but seriously, do it because it will help!)
Make two lists of info that will need to be revealed during the course of your story: one list for things that your character will need to discover, and one list for things that your character already knows but that will need to be revealed to the reader.