Genre Talk

The Revelation Ratio—some thoughts about plotting


An illustration of the Divine Ratio in mathematics

There is a sweet spot of revelation in writing—the perfect amount to reveal about your character and the world you’re building—so the reader feels oriented to the world while also curious to learn more.  But like so many sweet spots in life, it often proves elusive! When I am writing, I think of it as a ratio between how much I have revealed and how much remains mysterious, and it’s a moving target as a story unfolds.

A few years ago I learned an interesting thing about how you teach literacy—one of the key skills is asking the student to predict what will come next.  Some of you are probably skilled teachers who know a lot more about this than me, but it’s something I think about when I am plotting–what will the reader expect to happen, and what do I want to do about that.

A narrative needs to flow in a way that is, if not predictable, logical.  And it needs to prove sometimesmoonglow surprising.   An effective plot twist occurs when, at that moment of prediction, there are several possibilities and yet the one that the author writes is totally unexpected, but retains an obvious and almost inevitable logic. Not all books have plot twist, and I don’t particularly need one to enjoy a book, but it is really satisfying when one is done well and a real book-breaker when one is not.  I talked about Kristen Callihan’s Moonglow on this blog earlier in the summer, and she’s got a great plot twist, which transformed a character for me.

A story must keep us wondering and guessing—what will happen, why is she doing that, why does he feel that way?  A skilled storyteller is one that has an instinct or hard-won skill for suspense.

In paranormal plotting, it seems to me one of the best tools we have is the way the world is built and its qualities revealed through the action of the characters. In other words, the world itself is a built-in mystery. But we must balance the old “show the gun in the first act” with plenty of red-herrings along the way to create a rich, logical plot that keeps readers hooked.

I suppose I’ve been thinking about this because in my work-in-progress, I am considering delaying a few revelations.  Up to now, I had been relying on the conflict created by characters not knowing certain facts about each other and the world, while the reader and other characters did know.  But I’ve decided it will be more satisfying to the reader to discover some details later, when the other characters do.  Surprisingly, since the characters’ motivations don’t change, it’s not a major revision, and I already like the story better just for imagining it.

How about you?

Writers–any words of wisdom about how to balance revelation and suspense?

Readers and writers–Do you have an opinion on just what that divine ratio might be, or how it ought to change over the course of the novel?

Any paranormal books that reflect a real mastery of the plot twist or suspenseful world building?

14 thoughts on “The Revelation Ratio—some thoughts about plotting

  1. I’ve been pondering this lately, too. I love how you’ve described it as a ratio. This need to maintain a sense of mystery is, I think, one of the most important pieces of building a well-paced plot that keeps readers engaged. I’ve read books that get it wrong by not revealing enough, or delaying obvious revelations too long, to the point that I lose interest. I think this is the flip side of info-dumping.

    I totally agree that this is one of the most important aspects to get right in paranormal fiction. Right now I’m reading Wicked as She Wants by Delilah S. Dawson, and this is a book that does world building beautifully. She’s layered in just enough detail about her (incredibly unique) word to keep me hungry for more

    • AJ– yes! Those delays are so annoying, and also the excessive build up for a disappointing secret is another mistake I’ve seen. I would have found the detail interesting, if it hadn’t been given so much weight and mystery in the character’s development.

      So glad you are enjoying Delilah Dawson. I need to check her out!

  2. Thanks for such a terrific, thought-provoking post, Amber.

    Every book that I’ve loved has always kept me guessing. I like nothing better than trying to second-guess characters and then be proven wrong. I also love gradual revelations of the world I have entered – especially if those revelations tie in perfectly as part of character development, as opposed to the info dumps A.J. mentioned.

    But like you said, that revelation and suspense truly is such a difficult balancing act. I know he’s not from the PNR genre but Roald Dahl, in his adult works, was the master of balancing revelation and suspense for me.

    When planning my series, especially plot twists, I have always asked myself the question you referred to: What are all the possibilities? And then I’d pick the least expected. But then it’s keeping the balance act of enough of those whilst giving readers the self-satsfaction of at least being able to guess some actions or outcomes.

    It’s definitely a challenge I’ve faced working backwards on Blackthorn. Deciding what to reveal and when has had to stay foremost in my mind, rather than get carried away wanting to share everything straight away. Reader opinions as to whether it’s been done right will always vary depending on their own balance preferences, but as writer I think you have to work instinctively to some respect. Sometimes writing the way you like to read is the best you can do.

    • Lindsay–thanks for the tip about Dahl. I’ve read a lot of his shorts stories, but not in ages. I should go back and take a look.

      I like what you’ve said here about your method, and as someone who simply cannot plot in advance (and believe me, I’ve tried and tried), I confess to envying that level of forethought.

      I am forever doing these things from the gut–writing the big reveal and then noticing it felt anticlimactic. Maybe plotters and pantsers (or plantsers like me) are like straight-haired and curly-haired folks, always wishing for the other’s traits!

    • YES to writing instinctively. I think my subconscious makes better decisions than the rational part of me, especially when it comes to character.

      I love Roald Dahl’s adult works and I agree, he’s very good at building suspense. There’s a science fiction author I like (James Alan Gardner, space opera sci fi), and he does the world-building mystery exceptionally well. He has this whole interconnected series, and every book reveals *just* enough about the world he’s created. I think it’s tough to strike a balance between teasing and infuriating!

  3. I’m adding my own comment here because I was astonished to see a pick up truck with the nautilus image I picked for this post on the way to work this morning. I’m taking it as a good sign for my revision plans!

  4. Nice post. Thanks!

    I’ve tried to make notes of good plot twists when I’m reading, and try to figure out what makes them work, because it’s something I really suck at as a writer. The kind where the reader knows and the characters don’t? I can do that. It’s the out-of-the-blue, never-saw-that-coming kind that is more difficult, at least for me.

    The plot twist book-of-the-moment right now is probably GONE GIRL. I came to that one having heard all about it, so I was kind of forewarned.

    But I think the reason why it works is: as readers, we instinctively believe that the narrator is who they say they are. That they’re telling the truth. That their version of events is accurate. We are prepared to let ourselves be led by that person.

    A fantasy book that does a great job of manipulating that instinct (spoilers ahead, if the fact that there’s a twist can be called a spoiler… … …)

    …is AMONG THIEVES by Douglas Hulick. You assume the narrator is giving you all the relevant information. Well, maybe he is and maybe he isn’t. But we go along with him, and I at least fell right into that trap. And halfway through, it’s oh, shit. Why did I not see that?

    Another awesome book with a late reveal is BEST SERVED COLD by Joe Abercrombie. The heroine is a pretty dark character from the start, but the depths of her darkness are unrevealed for a while. Sort of. It’s all there on page one, actually, but we don’t see it, because we assume that like everyone else, our heroine has moral standards. Turns out she doesn’t. Later on, those words are given their true construction, and eww OMG brilliant why didn’t I see that the first time?

    The main plot of BEST SERVED COLD would still have worked without this reveal structure. But if we’d known all along that she {redacted for spoilers!}, would the book have been less good?

    I don’t know. But I think that ‘aha!’ moment does give me, as a reader, a sense of satisfaction and glee and all-round coolness that isn’t there if we know everything from the beginning.

    Still, there’s a lot to be said for the train-wreck plot. The Wars of Light and Shadow series by Janny Wurts is an eight-book (and counting!) train wreck.

    Anyhoo. I’ll shut up now 🙂 Can’t you tell I wish I could write a good plot twist?

  5. Very interesting, Amber! I would say, in both world-building and plot-wise, this is the hardest thing for me to decide ahead of time. Sometimes it takes a CP to say, “Hey, I don’t understand this.” Or “There’s too much here, maybe spread it out.” Sometimes as I’m revising that instinct kicks in and tells me where to shift things around. I think I tend to err on the side of too much reveal up front because I really, really hate those drag-it-out books that should be getting to the point already.

    This isn’t just for paranormal either. Since I write erotic contemporary as well, I see a lot of authors putting off that big first love scene (which can be good to an extent) with interruptions that, after a certain point, start to look like they are thrown in just for the delay factor, not to benefit the overall plot (which is not satisfying to the reader at all). Across genres, there are variations of this issue. But as to what ratio is best, I’m not sure. It might be individual to the book, finding the exact balance that works for that story, so long as you don’t dump too much too soon or hold it back so long your reader wants to scream. 🙂

    • Ella, I think you are dead-on that a bit of this is going to be particular to the author’s style and the specific story. I know what you mean about CP 🙂

      Yes! About the artificial interruptions–especially when you don’t have paranormal nonsense to help create tensions 🙂 I have raved elsewhere about how much I enjoyed “The Best Man” which I read after Kristen Higgin’s talk at RWA and I loved both her and the book, although I never would have picked it up on my own. Interestingly, the heroine has a serious backstory with the hero, but Higgins develops THE OTHER backstory first, in away that when she reveals the past with the hero, it is quite satisfying and delicious.

  6. Fascinating subject. As a mostly plantser myself, I find the twists I often plan in advance are utterly destroyed by my characters when they decide to take unexpected and sharp left turns away from my outline. I usually like their digressions better than my original idea. 🙂

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