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My question is similar to this one and in the same general vein as this one, but I think it's sufficiently different to warrant its own question.

Background

I've recently written a cyberpunk mystery story for a writing group with my friends, and after receiving some feedback I had an interesting question about story design that I thought was worth asking here.

The plot of the story revolves around a detective who is trying to expose a corrupt cybersecurity software company. At the end of the first chapter, there's a relatively mundane interaction with the detective's friend, and the conversation tacitly reveals that our detective protagonist is an android. I designed this reveal to be intentionally casual and minor, thinking that this would make the moment all the more surprising, and I figured it would be a fun "wow" moment when it clicks with the reader and they go back and think about the first chapter of the story from that perspective.

However, one of my writing group readers told me that they thought this was a really big and shocking reveal and deserved a bigger, more important moment in the story, and asked that I do a rewrite where I don't reveal the protagonist's true nature until closer to the end, so that the reader gets to rethink everything that's happened up until now through that perspective and has a bigger "aha" moment than in the current draft.

That got me thinking of a question which I'd like to ask here.

How do you determine the timing of big story reveals? In other words, how do you go about deciding whether to put a reveal towards the beginning, the middle, or the end, and what are the pros and cons of doing each?

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    Is it something the readers would be able to guess if you left it until later? Is it something you want them to know while reading the rest of the book? – DM_with_secrets Jun 7 at 9:27
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    Sounds like your writing group just read the first chapter. If there are other, more important twists/reveals coming later, this one sounds like a great plot hook perfectly placed early on. – Llewellyn Jun 7 at 12:48
  • This would be a story I would like to read! – Ángel Jun 8 at 2:14
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The question is, how much of the story turns on the fact that the protagonist is an android. Perhaps, a human detective would not have thrived or even survived. Also, how important is his(?) identity in the legal, economic, social, and religious contexts.

From what you wrote, I could envision several different stories.

In one, the underlying story is that of "coming out" and the mystery is merely the way of showing (rather than telling) the story. An android would see the world differently from a human. The questions asked and the actions taken would be a "bit off" and would cause tension in the reader who would ask, why is he being so strange. In most mysteries, the reader will assume that the detective knows something that the reader does not. Ideally, the reveal would happen at the same time that the outer mystery is solved, and that solution would be tied to some specific capability possessed only by androids.

In a second, the mystery is the primary story and the fact that the detective is an android is one of several decorations on the wall that color the story. Perhaps, the android is less proficient in something that a human would handle without thinking. And perhaps, that prolongs the solution of the mystery. This would seem to call for an earlier reveal, most likely in the first few progressive complications of the story. In failure, the detective would lament his/her lack of true understanding of gender, eating, or social graces.

Which story (among these and many other possibilities) is the right one? Not a clue.

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  • This is an insightful answer, thank you! I will keep this in mind. – Sciborg Jun 8 at 18:54
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You want the drama to build. And the bigger a reveal, the more dramatic it is, so they should be withheld for later.

However, there is the question of whether this is as big a reveal as this reader thinks. You mention that only one of the group said that. Did the others say nothing? You might explicitly ask them if you have doubts, but if only one of a group object to something, it may just be a mismatch between your story and the reader. No story appeals to everyone.

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As JonStonecash noted, this depends on the kind of story you want to build.

I would consider that it is appropriate to reveal this at the beginning of the first chapter. I expect you wanted to write a story about an android detective, and you want your readers to know he is an android. This is the kind of thing that would be shown in the backcover: "Our android protagonist will need to find out..."

This would allow you to include a number of to the problems he faces by being an android:

On The Caves of Steel R. Daneel Olivaw had an id card without that 'problematic' R. initial (meaning "Robot") which would have restricted him e.g. in the public transport. Your society may be "racist", not allowing your robot to do certain things or ask certain questions. Or quite the opposite, by being an android, he could be able to sneak in certain places without being noticed as a "rational being".

He might want to access some important building, but visitors need to go through a metal detector (which he would trip, even bearing no arms). Or even some places could X-rays people to ensure only humans enter.

This is probably the case in casinos, where an android, with perfect memory, would have an important advantage on many card games.

In a different story, he could be personally involved when investigating a murder that was blamed to his creator / android factory. In which case he could end up sold at auction / destroyed.

While not so directly involved, a corrupt cybersecurity software company could be responsible for some faulty software that harmed an android friend. The company could be bribing some politicians, lobbying so that all androids must install in their "brains" certain software they make (which our protagonist is reluctant to do, as it doesn't trust them at all).

All of these would require the reader to be in-the-know (which other people with whom it interacts may be aware of or not).

The first chapter should pave the ground for the rest of the story, and thus it seems the perfect place to provide this important 'detail'.

Or you could make a story where it is a twist point that is revealed at the end of the story changing its perspective, such as

Robot Visions by Isaac Asimov

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