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I'm currently writing a story in a fictional diary format. This is proving challenging in several ways, but right now, my focus lies on trying not to give away any "big news" at the start of a diary entry.

From personal experience, when I write something in a diary, the most relevant information tends to come first, usually followed by an exclamation mark. (Examples: "I got the job!" "Sam has asked me out!" "We're moving to Sydney!") If I were to describe the same episode in standard prose, it would be easier to lead the reader up to this point without spoiling the surprise. But since a diary entry always takes place after the event, the main character is guaranteed to know the outcome, so what's to stop them from thinking (and writing) about it as soon as they sit down to write?

What techniques can I use to delay the reveal?

If it matters, the format I'm using is more a free-style journal than an actual diary. The character may sometimes skip a day (or week) and on other days may update their journal repeatedly.

I'm doing this as a writing exercise, so please refrain from the obvious, "Do something else instead". Also, I've already got a few ideas and will probably post an answer myself later-on.

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    Make your narrator write the diary with an audience in mind, and make him/her love to toy with this audience. They can start an entry like: "Big news today! But first things first...", and even end an entry like: "... Well, that's all. Big news? No, I was just kidding." – Alexander Nov 18 '20 at 23:06
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    The book Emergence is written in diary format and does a really good job of this. The MC discusses how she imposes rules on how she writes in it. occasionally, she starts messing up,alluding to the big event, and then "fixes" the entry. – DWKraus Nov 19 '20 at 5:17
  • You've acknowledged that in your experience, a genuine diary entry would probably start with the big news - so why are you trying to delay it? (I know you said it's an exercise, but I assumed that was just the diary part - does the exercise specifically say you should try to delay the reveal?) – DM_with_secrets Nov 19 '20 at 12:20
  • @DM_with_secrets The exercise doesn't "say" anything, I just challenged myself. :) And sometimes, an early reveal is exactly what's needed. I have a few of them, though, and at that point, I started looking for alternative ways of handling them. – Llewellyn Nov 20 '20 at 19:30
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One approach would be to use information the diary author knows, but the reader doesn't:

Yes!! Oh my gosh it's YES!!

and then just carry on with the reaction or whatever but omitting all the details of what exactly this person has won/earned/been awarded or whatever until you feel like revealing it.

Another would be to start with a lede that reveals only that something has happened:

I will never forget this day. This is the date to remember.

And then "backs up" and goes through everything until reaching the information you want to reveal.

Both of these work well when this is the first diary entry in your story. If you have already had days of entries about how nervous the author is about an exam or a job interview or a visa application, then anything positive or happy as the first sentence of an entry is going to feel like it's about that thing they are so pre-occupied with. For that case, you could start several days with big excitements that turn out to be "I sliced an avocado when it was perfectly ripe" or "I have never made the trip from home to campus in just 17 minutes, all the schedules meshed perfectly" or whatnot. That will let you slide in a truly lifechanging one as a bit of a surprise.

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  • I love the idea to start with a vague statement that nonetheless makes it clear that something super exciting has happened. Depending on what's going on, the narrator might ramble and go off on tangents before their excitement finally is explained. They could even drop false hints ("... and that was great, but that's wasn't the best part, either") – Llewellyn Nov 20 '20 at 19:33
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I would take a cliffhanger approach where the suspense is built up in the back half of the chapter/entry so that the first sentance of the next chapter does pay off, and you can organically lead with the big part.

For example if Brutus was writing a diary during this time, the entry Dated "14th of March" would be about the big decision he has to make tomorrow and how he is torn over loyalty to his friend vs. duty to his country and knows either choice will stay with him long after he is gone. This entry would conclude and the next entry is dated "Ides of March" and say, "Today I stabbed Ceaser in the back for the good of Rome. Mark Antony's eulogy was beautiful and made me feel all the more worse... I smell something burning."

To be fair, I tend to write my chapters so they cliffhanger as I normally have two scenes running at the same time around the time for big reveals and thus I would have the cliffhanger ending to the chapter of scene 1, flip to scene 2 to help build the suspense, than back to scene 1 where the reaction to the ending of the last chapter happens.

If there is no second scene, this also works as it's a perfect place to stop for a breather but still hook the reader to come back and learn what happens next.

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