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Right before the climax of my scifi fantasy novel, there's a big reveal about who the bad guys really are and how they influenced the magic system -- throughout history. This reveal will be the much wanted answer to a big mystery arc, so I want to maximize reader payoff.

So the reveal:

1) Is not happening in real time, i.e. walking in on the bad guys to see them in action.

2) Also includes technical information about the magic as it relates to the bad guys.

The plot involves the MC finding a lost civilization who guards this secret. One of those people will deliver some of the information. In addition, I can use a hologram room to show other parts of the history.

My main concern is that delivering the reveal through something other than live action might diminish it.

What other ways to dramatize the delivery of historical reveals can I use to maximize excitement/payoff?

Clarification: this question does not ask how to build a plot twist, or how to write the mystery leading up to the reveal. The mystery already exists; there is foreshadowing, there is buildup, bits of info are seeded. This question regards narrative techniques I can use for delivering the reveal other than dialogue, holograms/recordings (i.e. showing but not in real time), and exposition, if any other exist.

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    "Contains technical information about the magic" - how much technical information? A plot twist should not be an infodump. – Alexander Apr 14 at 5:08
  • The tech info clarifies that the bad guys installed a system that forced all living species into acting a certain way to access magic, i.e. placed a constraint. This is a reveal, not a plot twist. By its nature, a reveal delivers unknown information. In this case, the book reveals slowly how the magic works, one last piece being added here. An infodump doesn't mean revealing info but doing so poorly, as dense exposition that readers have no reason to care about. By the same token, any information can be delivered poorly, i.e. infodumped, the key being the delivery mode itself. – geneaux Apr 14 at 12:11
  • The answers so far refer to what I can do prior to the reveal. My question regards narrative techniques for delivering a reveal. @DM_with_secrets, the existing answers are addressing a different question from mine. "Providing a framework challenge" and "writer to be able to take feedback" are statements that assume that others know the work, which they haven't seen, better than I do. "I get the impression you don't really want an answer" is, well... – geneaux Apr 17 at 11:41
  • @geneaux I'm sorry, my comments were a bit harsh. That was the impression I got about you not wanting an answer, but I guess I was wrong. In that case I'm afraid I don't really understand your question, but it looks like you've managed to find a solution so I'll move on. Best of luck :) – DM_with_secrets Apr 17 at 15:29
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In my experience, the simpler the reveal, the more shocking it is. A lot of technical detail at that point in the story dilutes the impact. Without knowing the details of the story, it might be useful to present these technical details as one completing explanation of the magic.

For example, "Hill people used to think that X was the source of magic; probably some of them still do. The swamp people knew better and thought that Y was the source of magic; the darker the swamp, the stronger the belief. The river people were sure that Z was the source. Of course, the rational folks were sure that none of them had a clue. Not a single definition of magic fit all of the facts that were plain for all to see. For example, X magic required animal sacrifice while Y magic revered all life and chanted its way to results. And do not get me started on Z magic. It just seemed like all of these so-called magic systems were excuses to hurl insults and shit at each other."

So now we have the conflict necessary for great story telling. The differences in beliefs cause differences in behaviors. All of this must be described and discussed. With some effort, almost all of the information needed to wrap up the story can be out there in plain sight, slightly disreputable and largely discredited. The final blow off can be summed up in the cry, "The hill/swamp/river people lied when they said that they no longer engaged in a-made-up ritual. The truth is that they dance around the fire covered in blue paint every Saturday night until the ugly monster stirs and shits gold." Or something like that.

The story leads the reader down the path of disbelief until the reader stumbles into the clearing where blue people are grabbing the droppings of a strange monster who dances around a fire. Oops! In a paragraph or two, the details are revealed, the implications are explored, the recriminations are expressed, and the truth is known. Slight of hand transferred to the page. Great fun if it is done right.

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  • These conflicts are already built in the story; the tension exists. The reveal happens right before the climax and is the consequence of a lot of work from the MC. This reveal is not something I can skip since it's the whole point of the book. I am asking for methods other than dialogue, holograms, or exposition to deliver the reveal if there are any. I am not certain what method you mean when you recommend to sum it up in one cry? Isn't this exposition? – geneaux Apr 14 at 20:57
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    In the end, it is all words. The words can describe action or context. The words can relate dialogue. In both cases, there are infinite variations. To be fair, there is also poetry but I know nothing about poems. My point on the reveal was to have pre-loaded almost all of the information about the reveal earlier in the book, obscuring the importance of that information by including other ultimately irrelevant information. The reveal can then be quick and clean: the real killer is... – JonStonecash Apr 15 at 16:06
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I'd say take an example from Star Trek. Remember that movie about the whales? Yeah. They had this build. Big bad guy rolling up. What are they here for? No one knows. The devastating message destroying the planet is being directed at the oceans. On a whim, they decide to see what the message would sound like underwater. Slowly they tuned the machine until, bam. Whale song. Whales were highly intelligent aliens that could transmit intergalactic status reports with their bodies, and this ship was sent to check up on them because they hadn't received a signal in so long. The signal was so strong due to being accustomed to long distance communication that they were unwittingly destroying the planet. This was doing rhe opposite of what you want. Introducing a bad guy and then revealing they're not the bad guy. Just do the mirror opposite. Have the bad guys revealed. You dont know what they want or what they do. They're just there. You don't even know if they're necessarily bad or not. They may even be viewed as good, or as a benevolent myth. However you want. Then have someone study pure magic, then find that it's not pure anymore. "It looks like, yes, it seems like some outside source has tampered with the magic! If that's so, it must have always been tampered with! Who would do such a thing?" Then have conspiracy theories tie in and loop together, explaining all the intricacies along the way, until the final loophole can be filled by revealing it was that group of people all along! Then if there's any loose ends, explain it away.

Alternatively you could go the Prometheus route. Have the holograms show bits and pieces. Maybe a red herring. False bad guys. Then at last reveal that, oh, oh my gosh, the aliens set a course for earth? Before there was life on earth? These aliens are the creators of humans? Why? In the movie it doesn't explain farther than that, but just put in like logs and records outside of the holograms. "What?! They affected the magic for all these years?! How?!" "I found this record right here! It says..." whatever you want it to say. Or have some wise man or village elder or something tell the whole origin story.

You have so many ways to do it, I'm having a hard time narrowing it down. I've given you two extremes. 1) all the information and then the reveal. 2) the reveal and then all of the information. You can mix it all up. As long as for the rest of the story you make absolutely no connection, whatsoever, that this group of people has anything at all to do with it, and then in the reveal it actually makes sense how they made everyone think they were innocent, your readers will be shocked. Your options are literally like a vast orchard right before the first harvest. Go and pluck

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  • I have already mentioned that I can use dialogue and holograms. I asked for other methods than dialogue, holograms, and exposition, if anyone can think of them. When you're saying to introduce to invert the Star Trek twist, that seems advice re how to build a twist. I am not asking how to create the buildup, which already exists, but what technique to use to deliver the information in the reveal, other than expositio, dialogue, and holograms, if anyone can think of something. – geneaux Apr 14 at 20:44
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This setup had two problems:

A) How to technically deliver a reveal about something that happened in the distant past such that it's cool to read about. How to show something that essentially isn't there to see for about a million years.

B) Making it emotionally satisfying --> stakes.

A) Narrative techniques

Stories are about delivering information. The way you deliver it often makes the difference between how that information is received. After thinking long and hard, I realized there simply aren't that many narrative techniques to deliver information:

1) Exposition is always worst. Telling readers through narration any kind of information can be flat, dull, and unexciting, which leads to writing an infodump.

2) Dialog is the next step up. Mixing information in dialog is like putting spinach in the blender to feed it to your kiddy hidden in their fruit juice. If you manage to make a fun concoction, all good. If not, they're going to spit it back out.

3) Showing or dramatization is the enactment of the reveal through actions that unroll before the readers' eyes. This is almost always the best narrative technique (except specific cases).

Everything that can be communicated in a story reduces to seeing it, hearing about it (dialog), or being told a summary (exposition).

Here, I needed to reveal past action. There was stuff to show, not just ideas, but I couldn't directly show it because the action had already finished. Something bothered me about it, it felt disembodied and distant. I thought it's because the characters can't participate directly in it, i.e. see it. I thought upping my narrative game is enough and maybe it would've been but something still felt off. I was not satisfied.

B) Stakes

A narrative technique like showing can't fix them. Though mine was a historical event, I found ways to dramatize it -- show it -- through something like a hologram, or some recording (these are not narrative techniques themselves but ways to implement the narrative technique of showing). It still didn't feel like it worked. I went one step further and came up with a minor technology that relays sensory information, i.e. make it "real", so I can pull readers into the scene with it. Something was still missing.

The biggest problem with something that happened in the past is that you can't stop it. You can't walk in on the bad guys, pull out a weapon, and demand them to stop. So then, what is at stake? What is the point of watching this reveal other than "it's cool" and "we waited the whole book to find it out"?

That's what felt off.

What can be at stake?

1) The long-time-ago reveal still influences the present (or it wouldn't matter - this was my problem, I wanted it to matter). You can't prevent it from happening, but you have reason to want to stop it now, reverse the damage, or you'll have consequences, die, the world ends etc.

2) In my case, the characters found out about the reveal in the first place because the magic had one of them seriously affected and they were due to die. And the other main cast cared, which amped stakes.

3) My reveal also implied that others will be soon affected too, if they weren't already, so there still was something to be stopped by tweaking the way the magic worked, even though the characters couldn't prevent the bad guys from altering the magic system a long-time-ago.

Last step: Tying it up

After setting up stakes and deciding on narrative delivery, the last step for creating an exciting reveal is to connect the reveal with its consequences and show real world impact to put it into perspective for readers. That's how the feeling I was trying to touch a ghost went away.

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