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I am writing a story, which involves the main character springing a big and dramatic surprise on their adversary in court.

A large part of the story involves the explanation/backstory of how he came up with that surprise.

The challenge is that I seem to be in a lose-lose situation:

  • If the backstory/explanation goes first, it spoils the reveal/surprise in court for the reader, which seems to devalue the whole climactic scene.

  • If the backstory/explanation goes after the court scene (which is at the front of the story to ensure surprise), then first of all, the story feels klunky due to narrative jumping back in time after the court scene, and also it feels like the readers would be underwhelmed by the rest of the story - since the court scene is the point and the climax and the resolution (part of what contributes to this problem, is that the story I am writing is the sequel, and the setup for the court scene is the whole original story).

Is there a way I can resolve this conundrum somehow? My only idea was to somehow use mis-direction, but given the specifics of the story, I simply can't come up with any plausible mis-direction for the specific surprise.

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    Is the surprise something that will make the reader ask "How on earth could that have happened?" If so, they will be interested to read about the explanation. Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 9:12
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    @KateBunting - As I alluded to, the setting is a court proceeding (divorce to be specific). The surprise is an unexpected move one side pulls to win the court case (and basically up-end the expectations). It's less "how on earth could happen" and more "how on earth did you come up with that unexpected solution". And the second part of the story, is the backstory of "how the solution came about"
    – user17760
    Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 10:07
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    Well, only you know whether it's startling enough to make the reader eager to learn the explanation. Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 10:16
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    Have you read Gaston Leroux's The mystery of the yellow room? It contains exactly these kinds of surprises.
    – Stef
    Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 19:11

3 Answers 3

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What you can do:

  1. Present the clues, but don't point them out to the reader and don't let your protagonist verbalize the conclusion. Agatha Christie and other writers have cleverly managed to show the readers who did it and yet fool them into wrong conclusions despite presenting all the facts. This requires a third person limited narration without insight into the protagonist's mind.

  2. Withhold the information. You can do that if the insight is sudden and the reveal to the reader comes in the next scene. This is a commonn technique, but it feels cheap and might irritate many readers. This doesn't work well if you want to show how the protagonist comes to their conclusion (but see no. 1).

  3. Switch the narrative viewpoints. If you tell the story from the perspective of the antagonist, both the antagonist and the readers will be surprised.

  4. The suspense can come from whether or not the surprise will be enough to win the case. The protagonist might believe they have the crucial piece of evidence against the antagonist, only to learn that the antagonist can counter it in some way.

  5. The suspense can come from whether or not the protagonist succeeded in getting hold of the surprising element. For example, they may have found a witness but it is unclear until the last moment whether the witness will actually appear in front of the court or what the witness will say. Or the protagonist might have gotten a DNA sample, but the results from the analysis aren't available until the last moment during the trial.

  6. You can focus on the reaction and behavior of the antagonist and make that dramatic, surprising, and/or satisfying for the reader. If the antagonist is someone the readers want to see punished and it seems the antagonist might evade punishment, it will feel satisfying that he or she gets what they deserve even if the readers see it coming. Or if the reaction is surprising (e.g. the antagonist pulls a gun and shoots the protagonist) or interesting on a psychological level or the legel consequences lead to new and interesting complications, you can surprise the reader with that.

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Watch the various Sherlock Series; e.g. in America, "Elementary".

They show Sherlock investigating, finding the clues, and resolving many of them.

However, the climax is pretty formulaic, and always works, storytelling wise:

Sherlock finds the final clue, we see him have his epiphany, but as the audience, we don't exactly understand it.

Cut to commercial! (increase suspense). In the finale, Sherlock confronts the criminal (in the police interrogation room, or in court, or in real life) and then explains to the criminal (and us) exactly what the clue meant.

This takes, by the writers, some mystery engineering, to make the final piece of the puzzle something Sherlock will know about the clue, but the audience will not.

Like in one episode, he realizes based on a rare orchid that a woman was having a secret affair with the deceased, something Sherlock saw early in the story, and only much later realized this flower was only given to women the deceased (a botanist) was having sex with; including this married woman that was the supervisor of the deceased.

Backing up the show to the beginning, we do see, quite clearly, this unique orchid on the supervisors credenza behind her, our attention is drawn to it. But we (the audience) blow it off. Sherlock with his photographic memory does not.

You need a similar dynamic. You show the clue, but well before the audience learns what it means. So when they do learn what it means, the audience is blind-sided. But not cheated! If they go back and look, then your hero absolutely did see and note that clue, also not knowing what it meant at the time. Only to spring it on us (the audience, and the culprit) in the finale.

Keep your big reveal at the end. Reveal the clue to the audience early, just don't reveal the implications of that clue until the finale. And just before your finale, your Sherlock discovers or observes something else, a different clue or fact, that makes them realize (without telling the audience) what that early clue means.

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    Unfortunately, this approach won't work, since the whole point isn't "how the MC stumbled into the reveal that was a mystery and surprise to him", but instead "how MC created the surprise" - HE (and the story is from MC's viewpoint) is literally the person most aware of the reveal.
    – user17760
    Commented Dec 18, 2023 at 14:39
  • @user17760 Then just use the reverse. Show the MC taking actions that create the surprise, without explaining them. We frequently see this in Professional Thief films; this guy (or even a team) working on things, but we don't actually see how all these things come together in the heist, a working machine where elements interact. Ocean's 11 is a prime example, an entertaining film where we know the goal, we see the parts and actions in progress, but how all these pieces work together is (successfully) left as a surprise for the finale, despite a few threatening hitches along the way.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 16:22
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Both @Amadeus and @Ben have provided great tips for writing/working with clues and reveals.

I'd like to expand on/add to especially Ben's answer.

Ben suggests switching the viewpint to that of the antagonist. I'm sure this works for some stories, but it might not for yours, or it could make your story feel too different from what you want. Alternatively, and involving less of a dramatic change, you could make the protagonist a friend of your current 'mastermind protagonist'. This may at first seem like a disappointing choice to have to make, but it could be necessary for your reveal to make sense, since we then wouldn't be 'in the head of the mastermind'. Alternatively, of course, and as Amadeus suggests, we could simply not have access to their thoughts.

Yet another alternative could be in the way we learn about the plan, or the way the surprise is 'built up' (and this ties in with the reveal): Perhaps you can tie the mastermind's preparations for the surprise to something else; a hobby or an interest (new or old), work, or some other explanation that could explain his behaviour. One way to make this work, is by having the mastermind 'explain away' all these errands and plans to someone else, perhaps in order to not seem crazy or obsessed, perhaps to get out of having plans or working ow whatever. We could read about the mastermind's errands and understand that they are doing a lot of things and putting a lot of work into it, without actually understanding exactly how these things fit together and how they are tied to the court case.

However: Suspense and challenges drive the story forward, and so, if you do not want a super short 'reveal/explanation' of how he established the surprise (like the Sherlock ones often are, though satisfying), I agree with Ben that one or more challenges could/should arise, especially if we've somewhat followed the mastermind during his setup of the surprise. The more we've understood of the masterminds work on establish the surprise, the more we will probably 'need' of a challenge/change for the story to stay interesting. But, even if we haven't followed the work and understood it, challenges are good or necessary.

A challenge or change could occur in that your mastermind suddenly has a change of perspective on the situation; perhaps they realise they were 'the problem' (but they were too busy making their spouse the culprit/bad guy), perhaps the sight of their shared kids makes them realise that this fight shouldn't escalate the way it does, perhaps they're accused of something themselves and the story shifts in an unforeseen direction.

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