By Wendy S. Russo, Author of January Black
“Keaton always said, ‘I don't believe in God, but I'm afraid of him.’ Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.” --Verbal Kint, from the film, "The Usual Suspects".
I am a huge fan of slow reveals, so when Lia London suggested this post, I jumped on it. But, while I was considering what to write, I realized that I don’t have that much to say about them. It’s a tool in the box; it would be rather like describing the virtues of a pen. There is, however, a lot to be said for the effect they have on the audience.
Fair warning: I am going to share how I robbed myself of the reveal at the end of The Usual Suspects by showing up to the movie (very) late. I will be spoiling the movie, so if you have not seen it…and I talked to someone this week who hasn’t…I beg you, stop reading now.
Okay? Ready to go on? Good.
In spring of 1996, I walked into a TV lounge at a college dorm. My boyfriend and his neighbors were watching Kevin Spacey with rapt attention. Eighteen minutes later, every single mouth in the room was agape as a face printed out of a police department’s fax machine. Every one, that was, but mine. My shock was at their shock. I had known for 17 of those 18 minutes who Keyser Soze was. They had watched the entire movie and were deceived until the last two minutes.
There are two literary devices in play that made that possible. Verbal Kint was 1) an unreliable narrator who used 2) a very slow reveal to lead interrogators to the conclusion that he wanted. And he did it in such a way that, in the end, the police were pushing him to accept the notion that he had just spent hours creating. The difference between the others in the room and me, as viewers, was time. Verbal had 80 minutes to toy with them before I heard a single word of his story.
About unreliable narrators, they’re tricky. First, fiction is already a shadow of reality. It relies upon a reader’s willingness to accept a fabrication as truth. Unreliable narrators inject some sort of falsehood--it could be a lie, confabulation, or delusion--into that fabrication. Two, a single instance complicates a story because, just like telling lies in real life, the author must keep what is true in his world straight from what is not. Every additional deviation from "the truth" further compounds the complication. But unlike in real life, the reader can stop and rewind when the story rings untrue. The writer must find a way to avoid this, to keep the pages turning forward. The payoff for the reader has to be fantastic.
Of the two devices, it’s the slow reveal that is more powerful. Even in the case of Verbal Kint, it’s the elusiveness that strings the audience along and finally delivers the payoff, not his dishonesty.
I envy the people that go into this movie blind. Because I know the answer, Verbal Kint’s story will never leave me speechless, and that’s a sad thing.
The Slow Reveal
This maze, inlaid on the floor of Chartes Cathedral, is called “Ariadne’s Thread,” named for the girl who gave Theseus a ball of string to navigate the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Today, she continues to help people all over the world solve logic problems. If you’ve ever completed a Sudoku puzzle, you probably identified the possibilities of each empty square and then eliminated them one by one. In so doing, you followed Ariadne’s Thread.
If you look at the Chartes’ maze from above, you’ll see that the thread is not simply the path from the entrance to the exit. The thread weaves throughout every open channel. It not only exhausts all possibilities, but also is the sum of all possibilities.
Drawing of the Chartes maze. (Credit: Unknown)
This is the writer’s challenge when crafting the slow reveal: to draft a complete maze of crucial pieces and leave a thread for readers to follow through all of them. To determine what needs to be revealed and to hold it back until the thread turns just the right corner. The readers should see what the writer wants them to see, when the writer wants them to see it.
In my attempt at a slow reveal, I started with an opening scene, a climax scene, and a theme that tied them together. I plotted the positions of the scenes that changed the story’s direction, and then determined the balance of narration and dialog to link those major scenes. This affected pacing, so these steps were tweaked continually while I was working. Details that I chose to reveal in the final act had to be set up much earlier in the book. I found locations, if they existed, to insert it details. I tried to incorporate them in ways that moved the forward plot or developed either character or setting. If a good location didn’t exist, I modified scenes or even created a new ones. In the end, I had a finished puzzle. I understand the mechanics, but did I produce a good story? That’s really for my readers to decide.
The goal, I think, is to pull that thread in the final stretch and have the entire novel cinch tight. As the secrets unfold layer after layer, the loose ends should tie.
Or the twist should unravel the false tapestry. Or Verbal Kint should hobble out of a police custody, ditch his limp as he walks down the street, and out himself as the real Keyser Soze.
Wendy S. Russo got her start writing in the sixth grade. That story involved a talisman with crystals that had to be found and assembled before bad things happened, and dialog that read like classroom roll call. Since then, she’s majored in journalism (for one semester), published poetry, taken a course on short novels, and watched most everything ever filmed by Quentin Tarantino. A Wyoming native transplanted in Baton Rouge, Wendy works for Louisiana State University as an IT analyst. She’s a wife, a mom, a Tiger, a Who Dat, and she falls asleep on her couch at 8:30 on weeknights
(Originally Posted March 2, 2012, on LiaLondon.net)