Writing Set-Up for the Big Reveal!

Greetings, SE Readers. Beem with you today. First, I want to thank everybody involved with Story Empire for the warm welcome extended to me as a new member. The invitation to join truly is an honor. I would also like to wish everybody a Happy New Year. Here is my first post.

New story

Some writers swear by the outline. Other writers, those seat-of-the-pants types, have little time for such nonsense. The desire to get that story from head to page is much too urgent. I’m not going to rehash that old outline-versus-pantser argument. Writers will choose the one that works best for the individual and run with it.

What I’d like to share today is the set-up. This is where an outline really comes in handy, though it certainly isn’t necessary. Most writers know what the set-up entails. It’s those breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the story that leads to the big reveal at the end.

One of my favorite movies, The Others, does this exceptionally well. If you haven’t seen this film, I’ll try not to spoil its epic reveal. A woman and her young children live in a remote country house, which they are convinced is haunted by ghosts. Throughout the story—set during the aftermath of World War 2—breadcrumbs are sprinkled liberally. These little clues are everywhere. The husband comes back from battle, apparently shell shocked and in a fog. He wanders off, never to be seen again. Her children suffer from an unspecified ailment that renders both boy and girl highly sensitive to light. A piano in the parlor plays by itself. The daughter claims to have seen unknown people in the house. Three new servants are hired: housekeeper, gardener, and a mute girl. The three had worked in the house years earlier. When questioned about their previous experience in the house, the housekeeper recounts leaving after an outbreak of tuberculosis.

There are many other well-placed crumbs throughout. By the time we get to the end, we find that the house is indeed haunted, just not the way the woman imagined. When reality hits, it’s quite a mind-blowing revelation (at least I thought so). But the thing is, the viewer doesn’t suspect this ending—until it hits. That’s the brilliance involved in this story. Once the truth is revealed, all those breadcrumbs suddenly fall into place, illuminating what was there for the viewer to see almost from the beginning. Everything makes sense at that point.

Now, back to writers sprinkling breadcrumbs throughout our own stories. The set-up should lead to a big reveal that surprises readers—or even blows a few minds. The reveal should bring understanding to those set-up points embedded within the story.

What exactly are those set-up points? They can be something as stark as burn scars of unknown origin your character has worn throughout his/her life. Later, it’s revealed the character, as an infant, nearly died in a housefire that killed his/her real parents. During a weekly session with a therapist, the character tells of having always felt different from his/her siblings, a disconnect, like he/she didn’t really belong.

The set-up can be mundane things as well. An item goes missing in the first or second chapter. It doesn’t seem important early on—until the big reveal. This is where readers finally see it as a vital clue.

Here are a few tips for the big set-up:

  • Sprinkle your clues throughout the story. Don’t front-load them all at the beginning.
  • Don’t make your crumbs obvious. You want to surprise the reader at the end, allowing them to recall the clues once all has been revealed. A brief line of dialogue, quick mention of an old friend, short narration describing an item on the fireplace mantle.
  • Be sure your crumbs fit in with the big reveal. Your clues need to make sense to readers by the end.
  • Work backward when getting ideas for what sort of crumbs you’ll drop. Outlines are perfect in these scenarios, but not necessary. If you have an intended ending, write it down first—even if it’s only a scene or two that offers the reveal. Then, examine it. Craft your clues based on those final scenes. Then, sprinkle them throughout the story.

The idea is for it all to make sense to your readers—without telegraphing the ending. We’ve all read books or watched movies where we’ve figured out the ending well before we’ve reached it. There’s a bit of a letdown there. Give your faithful readers a prize—and a thrill—at the finish. They will appreciate your attention to detail.   

BeemWeeks copy (1)

85 thoughts on “Writing Set-Up for the Big Reveal!

  1. Wonderful first post here Beem. I like your layout with the breadcrumbs. Although, I will still say that if we’re dropping breadcrumbs, we must make notes of them to makes sure all is right for the big reveal, so in essence, even if we’re pantsers, there is still some method of outline or at the least, a character mapping needed in order to keep track of all the crumbs. 🙂

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  3. I love that movie. My mind was officially blown at the end – amazing. I recently finished a book by a first time author that had shocking reveals at the end of the novel. Part of the reason they were so shocking was there had been no indications, sprinkles of clues, etc. given throughout the story. If felt like they were included just for the sake of having twists. This is a post I wish he’d read before publishing his novel. Thanks, Beem!

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    • Thank you, Teri. I remember watching The Others while lying down, all comfy and cozy. When that reveal came, I sat straight up and hollered, “Oh my God! No way!” My mind was officially blown as well! Yeah, the big reveal without clues sprinkled throughout is just bad manners. It’s almost as if the reveal is an afterthought, tossed in on a whim. But when you get to the reveal, and suddenly those seemingly stray bits and pieces make sense, it’s just a beautiful thing.

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  4. Great start to the Story Empire blog! I love a book that has a breadcrumb trail in plain sight that’s so well introduced I’m not aware of it. That wow! moment at the end is enhanced by the fact that I had all the information before the twist that I didn’t see coming! The Others is a great example. Looking forward to your next post.

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  5. I absolutely found this helpful as I am in the process of writing a mystery/thriller of my own. It is my first book and I need as many helpful tips as I can consume. I plan to go back and read your earlier posts to guide through as I am new to word press. I have posted the book I am writing in my pages and also a short story I entered into a contest.
    Thank you for all your insights.

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  6. Great first post, Beem. I’m a panster but I’m trying to become more of an outliner. I do like dropping breadcrumbs throughout the story. I always know how my stories will end, but getting there is another matter.

    And now I’m intrigued by that movie!

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    • Thank you, Joan. Some writers excel in the panster mode, while others succeed with an outline. What ever works for the individual. I find the outline allows for things like breadcrumbs. As for The Others, it is worth your time.

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  7. Really enjoyed this post. I’m a plotter, and I write mysteries. Sometimes I can surprise readers and sometimes not. You make great points, though. It’s fun when I can. I’ll have to think about my breadcrumbs more.

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  8. Wonderful first SE post, Beem! And you’ve really made me think. I don’t do outlines, because my characters talk to me as I write and change everything I was planning to do with them, so it turned out that outlining (for me) was a waste of time. And like Mae Clair, I never know exactly how my stories are going to end, so I can’t write the actual ending first, either. BUT, I do know the important things about the ending, like who lives & who dies, or who ends up in a relationship with whom, so I think I can use your tip for starting at the end to help me with those breadcrumbs, even if the end isn’t actually written. There is usually going to be a “reveal” of some sort if I’ve got a mystery going, so your tips on working backwards, even without a definite ending, could still work for me.

    I’m going to try this idea out with my current WIP. It’s a spinoff novella, and thus, much shorter than my usual books, so I’m thinking it would be a perfect way to learn how to do this. (It would also likely be helpful in the longer work I recently shelved after getting stuck in the middle. Doh.)

    Thanks so much for these tips. They just might make a big difference in the way I write, going forward!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad you stopped by, Annette. You should set a goal to write a full-length short story this year. That will open the door to the next step–a novel. You’ve got an entire community here to encourage you toward the finish line. Thank you so much for sharing a little about your own writing journey.

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  9. Excellent way to start your tenure, Beem. I love sprinkling breadcrumbs. To me, they pop right out. I’m constantly leaving notes for my editor (is this too obvious?). So far, so good. She hasn’t said yes yet. 😉

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  10. A wonderful post to start your Story Empire stint, Beem. I especially enjoyed your suggestion of working backward – starting with the big reveal, and then sprinkling the clues. I’m an outliner, so this works really well for me. Though I don’t write the ending first, it’s a great way to analyze the story before beginning a second draft. 😀

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  11. What a fabulous first post, Beem! I love sprinkling breadcrumbs, but because I’m a plantster, I usually end up having to go back and thread them in. I rarely if ever know the endings of my books. Other times, something trivial I drop into a scene later becomes an ideal crumb. I love when that happens. I also love when an author blows my mind with an ending I didn’t see coming but the foreshadowing was there all along (like The Sixth Sense).

    I’ve never seen The Others, but I’m going to have to look it up. There is a very old book/movie by Thomas Tyrone called The Other which also delivered a jaw-dropping ending. Reading this post has me thinking about it again.

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  12. I have a habit of writing the last three lines of a book before starting. I think your post finally explained why I do that. I want to ensure that the ending is consistent with the story throughout. Great post, Beem. I have not seen The Others, but The Sixth Sense gobsmacked me. I’m not a mystery writer, but maybe it would be fun to have a big reveal and sprinkle hints throughout the story. Thanks for the tips. 😁 Welcome to SE.

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    • That’s an interesting idea, John. Writing the last three lines will certainly ensure consistency throughout. I think breadcrumbs can work in more than just mystery. It can lead us to why a character does that annoying thing throughout the story. Thank you for your comments.

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  14. What a great post, Beem! Your example of “The Others” drives the point home. Stories that manage the breadcrumb technique keep me turning the pages as fast as I can. Thank you for sharing. Your tips are very helpful! And again, welcome to Story Empire!

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  15. You hit the ground running, Beem. Kudos!

    I love all your points. My favorite is to work backward when dropping clues. (But I’m a planner, so I can do that.) Some of my favorite movies have those surprise reveals that aren’t meant to be seen until after the fact. Sometimes I saw them. Other times, I was floored. The Others was a wonderful example. Everyone talks about Fight Club and The Sixth Sense. I rather like The Usual Suspects and Sneakers. Hiding the breadcrumbs in plain sight is the key to pulling off the earned surprise ending.

    Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah, yes! The Usual Suspects! One of my favorites. I’ve seen many movies and read many books where the author telegraphs that big reveal before we actually get to it. That’s disappointing. But when done right, nothing beats that WOW response something like The Usual Suspects or The Others allows us. Thank you for reminding me of those other wonderful examples, Staci.

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  16. Hi,
    This is such a different and thought provoking post… Currently, I’m tearing the first draft of a book apart – gutting it, as my history professor used to tell us. Gut a book, find out what’s really going on, Doing this with my own work, I’ve I discovered thoughts lost at the back of my mind, . Now, I’ll try to bring them out – reveal slowly…

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    • Thank you for your comments, Esther. Just take your time with each draft. It will be worth the effort. I’ve gutted many a first draft. It can be eye-opening to the author. But that’s where things begin to fall into place. Best wishes to you on this project.

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  17. It’s great to read your first post, Beem! Being traditionally published, I’m forced to outline and submit a synopsis…yuck. “Don’t make your crumbs obvious. You want to surprise the reader at the end, allowing them to recall the clues once all has been revealed.” Great advice…leave the loaf in the bread box!

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  18. This is an amazing inaugural post, Beem. Your examples of breadcrumbs and how they could/should lead the reader are excellent. I haven’t seen The Others, but much like Denise, The Sixth Sense is unforgettable for me. Thank you for illuminating this important facet of writing and Welcome Aboard!

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    • Thank you, Gwen. I am honored to be a part of this wonderful adventure known as Story Empire. The Others is worth watching. It’s a slow movie early on. I almost bailed on it a couple times. I am so glad I didn’t. When the reality of the situation is revealed, so many breadcrumbs become apparent. It’s wonderfully done. Nicole Kidman is simply amazing throughout this story.

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  19. Happy New Year, Beem, and wonderful first SE post! I, too, enjoyed The Others and did not see that ending coming. Great examples. I fall somewhere between planning and pantsing (makes me a plantser), and your advice to work backward with the breadcrumbs is spot on. Thanks for sharing 💕🙂

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  20. Hi Beem
    It’s been years since we “met”, so you may not remember me, but I found your first post here very interesting.
    My characters scatter crumbs, but I do faithfully keep track chapter by chapter, refer back to that document often, and even more when I’m editing.
    If my regular beta reader asks a question, I look to see why she doesn’t know the answer… unless it’s a secret until the end. 🙂
    A belated “Happy New Year”.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hello, Sarah. I do indeed remember you. Lovely to find your comments here. Your approach to scattering crumbs sounds like it works. Thank you for showing up today. I am grateful. Happy New Year to you as well.

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  21. Great post, Beem 🙂 I like your example, and the thrill of being surprised in a story. It is fun to look back at all the crumbles and realize it all made sense. Sixth Sense did that for me too. Enough where I watched it again. I don’t outline before I write, I’ve been doing it after to make sure my crumbes make sense or I don’t miss anything. I love bring surprised when reading, especially if it all falls just right.

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    • The Sixth Sense is one I’ve watched several times. That first time was such a thrill. I’m with you. I love being surprised by a well-told story. Thank you for your comments, Denise.

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