Reading a good story written by a talented writer is like watching a striptease. That’s Chuck Palahniuk put it in an interview I listened to concerning his newest book Damned. The metaphor was briefly discussed, but it was one I had heard before, and I felt like sharing it, putting my own spin on it. You can read the interview here.
I read an interesting novel that nearly killed me emotionally called Skippy Dies. 3/4 through the story, the main protagonist named Skippy indeed dies. In fact, he dies first in the first chapter only to die again 500 pages later. Some might see this as utterly pointless. If you know he will die in the end, why do we care about his story? Well, every character, fictional or reality-based, will die. So, it’s not as if we can truly not guess our own endings. The only difference is that in life, you are allowed not to care what critics and readers say about the plot line.
In Skippy Dies, however, the grand reveal isn’t that Skippy dies. If Skippy simply went to school, hung out with his friends, then died, it would be a boring story. We would feel cheated. But there is much unfolding. We must find out why Skippy dies and what happens before and afterwards. How do his friends, teachers, and family react? Essentially, though it may seem Paul Murray reveals the ending in the very title, he keeps a lot of information secret.
How is this like a strip show? Well, imagine going to a strip join, and the stripper walks out onto stage completely naked. That takes away the entire point. You miss the tease. Of course, you might go to the club just to see breasts. But because you miss the build-up to seeing them, it becomes less-than-special. The stripper has to tease you, to make you scream for her to take off her clothes. Because by withholding her own body from you, she makes you want it more and more. Only when she finally shows you her body naked do you relent. No longer do you even want to see her naked because you already have. The entire point is the tension building up to that moment. Then, seeing the breasts feels like triumph. The end to a long clothed torture.
This is a rather crude analogy, but it works extremely well. Take into account the book/film Fight Club. Imagine that at the start of the story, you already know that the narrator is Tyler Durden. It ruins the effect of the book. Otherwise, we know that the narrator destroys his own life, mucks up his own plans. We lose that beautiful sense of realization. As readers, we need that realization in the story that everything we’ve known is not quite true.
When scientists discover something astonishing, we the public are properly astonished. If we discovered how to travel back and forth in time, we would find this amazing. Years from now, however, our own ancestors will laugh at us. Of course you can go back in time. It’s not surprise to them. To them, the mechanics and effects of time travel have no wonder, no mystery. Growing up, I never questioned gravity. It was simply something I knew, something I took wholly for granted. I learned it young as an inevitability. A long time ago, though, scientists questioned the theory. They did not believe the Earth was round, and they believed that the sun circled the Earth.
After reading a story, the plot twists do not surprise us any longer. They seem inevitable. We have seen the breasts and are satisfied, so seeing them any more seems just excess.
In fiction writing, let this be a lesson. Don’t reveal all your character’s secrets right away. You don’t even need to reveal them at all, only hint at them. Hint them enough and your reader will slap his or her head, thinking, I can’t believe I missed that. We have these beautiful moments when readings, these mind-bending realizations.
Oh, so his father was actually himself, only he went back in time to impregnate his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother? Of course!
Use this element of surprise when not only writing fiction, but blogs and journalistic pieces too. If there is a big reveal, save it. Let your reader work for it. Readers love to be rewarded. While researching award-winning feature articles, my News Paper Production class came across an article about a dance student and dance teacher who met and began practicing together after a night in a club. Toward the end of the article, we learn that the woman the teacher has been instructing has spina bifida and is confined to a wheelchair. You feel stupid for a moment, but also relieved. Suddenly, the story makes complete sense. Remember that readers need little rewards, little surprises.
They can’t just be random, though. If I revealed now that I have written this entire post naked, it would not change a thing. But if I’ve been lying to you to prove a point, now that’s tricky writing. I haven’t been lying to you, but just imagine if I had been. You would feel overwhelmed. Or maybe I am Tyler Durden.
Breasts are great. Your reader definitely wants to see them. Without them, the story seems flat (get it?) But don’t just whip those babies out first thing. Tease them a little bit first.