02 February, 2012

The Slow Reveal

Yesterday I read a lovely little piece of flash fiction: Fool's Fire by Hayley Lavik.

Go read it. I'll wait. It's only 954 words.

Done? Great. Wasn't that beautiful? And it does something, quite well, that is difficult to pull off: slowly revealing the nature of a character in a way that does not annoy the reader.

It's all too common for authors to hold information back simply so that they can spring it upon the reader later on. The gender switcheroo is common: Avoid using gender-specific pronouns when describing a character, so that at the last second you can reveal that—gasp!—that tough warrior is actually a woman!

This kind of thing is easy to do in prose, but it's got to serve some purpose aside from a cheap shock. And it's hard to do without telegraphing that it's what you're doing.

An excellent example of this device being used well is in Neal Stephenson's The System of the World, wherein—

SPOILERS - highlight to read
Two characters (Isaac Newton and Daniel Waterhouse) have been relying on another (Sean Partry) in order to try to catch a third (Jack Shaftoe). After several sections where we (from the perspective of Newton and Waterhouse) interact with Partry, it is revealed that Partry in fact is Jack Shaftoe. Having never met the man before, Newton and Waterhouse do not recognize Shaftoe on sight, and so Shaftoe is able to essentially nullify them as opponents by pretending to be searching for himself.

This serves to demonstrate to us (when the duplicity is revealed) that Shaftoe is cleverer than these lettered men, among other functions in the story.

It's essentially a dance where the author needs to keep the audience entertained while not telling them everything. The undead ghoul who is the protagonist of Fool's Fire at first seems merely to be an unfortunate young woman who is lost in a swamp, until we realize that she is disgorging a surprisingly large amount of mud from her gullet, and having fragmented memories and perceptions that a normal human would not. (My guess is that she was spurned by her object of affection and drowned herself in the swamp.)

It's an effective, highly formal use of the device, a solid skeleton on which to drape the detailed flesh of the story.

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