Critique Technique, Part 13: Timing the Reveal

In Part 9, I wrote about timing as it related to conflict. But there’s another layer of the writing onion that I need to discuss: timing as it relates to revealing character. I have a feeling this is one of those things that many writers, especially new ones and “pantsers” (writers who don’t plan out their stories in advance, but instead write “by the seat of their pants”), don’t think about. I admit I hadn’t, and I wouldn’t be surprised if experienced writers, whether they outline, stitch together scenes written in random order, or pants-it, do this more subconsciously than consciously, no matter what genre they write in.

Examining when an author reveals a particular personality trait or characteristic while critiquing a work is worth doing.

Sometimes it’s obvious: in a murder mystery, for example, there has to be a point at which the act of killing and the identity of the killer are connected. The whys and wherefores might have been revealed earlier—as the FBI profiler builds the psychological sketch of the killer—or may come out later—as the killer himself, the investigator, or the prosecutor explains his motivations. In cases like this, the need for and the timing of at least some of the specific revelations are pretty clear.

Practical Example

That’s not always the case, though. Take my own first book, The Eternity Plague. My heroine, a medical researcher, has to decide if she’s going to try to cure a world-wide plague. Seems pretty obvious that the answer would be “yes,” but in this case, it’s not. She has to make the yes-or-no decision and I had to decide when and how to reveal why she makes it. But there were complicating factors I had to consider. (There always are, aren’t there?)

  • At the time she made the decision, would she have a clearly-formed understanding of why she was making it?
  • Events outside her knowledge or control might make her change her mind or her motivations.
  • Her initial reasons for making the decision might be wrong.
  • She might learn things about herself she didn’t know before.
  • Her personality might change: she might mature or retreat into immaturity.

All of these things could have been true or could have happened. So then I had to decide when and how to reveal them as well as her final decision and its true, or at least final, reasons.

This kind of analysis is fun. It’s a lot more interesting (to my way of thinking, anyway) than just mechanically creating lists of traits and characteristics for each character and plopping them into the text.

From the Reviewer’s POV

So now it’s time to take off the author hat and put on the reviewer hat. You’re reading someone’s piece, either fiction or non-fiction, and you’re watching her reveal her characters’ inner lives and workings. You want to assess whether she’s throwing out these bits of characterization at random, or if there’s a reason for making each revelation at that moment in that way. You want to evaluate whether doing so contributes to the story beyond just telling the reader about this particular aspect of that character.

A couple other points:

  • Not every revelation will be, or needs to be, so significant. Some details are more important than others. As a reviewer, you’ll need to make that distinction.
  • The author might be planting a false lead. Not every revelation has to be the truth, and won’t be if he’s trying to disguise the character’s true nature, or the character herself is.

Questions For You

All right, then, here’s your homework. As you’re reviewing a piece, ask yourself:

  • Does presenting this trait in this way at this time add something important to the story?
    • If not, why not?
    • Could presenting it at a different time or in a different way be more effective? If so, how or where, and why?
  • Does presenting this trait in this way at this time distract or confuse me about the character?
    • Might that have been the author’s intent? If so, why was it effective?
    • If it did distract me and that was not the author’s intent, what can she do to make the revelation clearer or more effective?

How do you assess whether an author has revealed some aspect of a character’s personality at the right time or in the right way? Add your thoughts in the comments box below.

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