Storytelling

Five Types of Disastrous Reveals

Amon from Legend of Korra

Don't hide the villain's face unless revealing it will mean something.

A great reveal can be sublime. Unfortunately, this has storytellers chasing after the perfect reveal even when their story would be better off without it. Reveals have to be set up just right to work, and some information is too critical to be withheld until a dramatic moment. Let’s look at five types of reveals every storyteller should avoid.

Spoiler notice: Legend of Korra Season One, The Fire’s Stone, Teen Wolf Season Four, Plus One.

1. The Some Guy Reveal

The masked Amon about to fight a waterbender. Legend of Korra: Every time we see the villainous Amon, he’s hidden behind a mask. Surely that mask is hiding a face we’d recognize.

Who is the murderer who waits in the shadows, always one step ahead of the hero? Is it the servant who has a strange knowledge of how the murders happened? Is it the scorned lover who swore revenge? How about the angry merchant who has a fortune to lose? It must be the detective’s partner; a clever bit of foreshadowing explained how she grows the very plants the murderer kills with. But nope, it’s none of those people. It’s this guy named Bob. You’ve never heard of him before, but you saw the corner of his shadow that one time. Sure, it could have been anyone’s shadow, but trust me, it was his.

When the audience is given a big mystery hook, they expect to have the information they need to solve that mystery. For mystery fans, most of the fun is picking over seemingly insignificant details to figure out the answer. This is even more fun because the culprit is probably disguised as an innocent character. Revealing this character as a villain will have a huge impact on the story. If the villain is a total stranger the audience had no chance of catching, it’ll be a big letdown.

That’s why if a mystery is important enough to build audience anticipation, it’s critical to foreshadow the answer. In the case of a whodunit, that must include introducing the villain. Yes, some audience members will probably guess your reveal, but that’s better than making everyone unhappy. Choosing an unconventional answer to your mystery and doing your best to hide your foreshadowing will go a long way toward creating a satisfying reveal.

2. The Disingenuous Reveal

the cover of Boneshaker Boneshaker: Blaming herself for how her son ran off, Briar Wilkes heads into danger after him. If readers actually understood why she felt so guilty, it would be easier to care.

The hero’s entire motivation is to rescue a button. That’s right, a button. It’s a little strange that she wants it back so badly, because she could buy a new one at the store. Since she doesn’t have a solid motivation, it’s hard to care if she succeeds. At least she’s got her work cut out for her – the person who stole the button is one badass villain. She snuck into his stronghold and took the button, but now she’s surrounded by his army. How will she get out? Oh, looks like that button held a genie who is also her mother. She’s known that the whole time, and that’s why she wanted the button so badly. We didn’t know that because…  well, because.

In most stories, the audience needs to be in the shoes of the protagonist. That helps the audience develop deep attachment to the hero, and therefore to the story as a whole. When the audience doesn’t know critical information the protagonist has from the start, it creates a rift between the protagonist and audience. Plus, hiding critical information for long stretches will inevitably make the protagonist look irrational and the narration feel contrived. When the truth is finally revealed, the audience will feel like the storyteller, not the natural events of the story, cheated them of information.

These reveals can damage the whole story, but they are also easy to avoid. The solution is to tell your audience all the important information that any point of view character knows. The more time the audience spends with a point of view character who knows something important they don’t, the more damage it will do. So unless you have a very compelling reason to do otherwise, let your point of view character and your audience experience mysteries together.

3. The Obvious Reveal

The Fire's Stone cover art The Fire’s Stone: There’s a secret big bad! It couldn’t possibly be that asshole adviser to the king. Not a chance.

One of the nation’s highest generals is a traitor! Hmm, I wonder if it’s the guy who’s mean to animals, drones on about strong versus weak people, and actively twirls his mustache every time he speaks. Naaahh. Can’t be him, too obvious. We’ll wait for the hero to piece together who it is, clue by clue. Finally, after carefully analyzing clues involving a whimpering dog and a mustache hair, the hero reveals how the mustache twirler is a traitor. The other characters are shocked. They put him in chains and take him away. But there’ll be another twist revealing the real traitor, right? Right???

Reveals are sublime because they aren’t expected. Unexpected twists add a boatload of novelty to the story. But these reveals are the very opposite of novel – they’re cliche. They make the story exceedingly dull instead of exciting. The audience may enjoy reading through most of the story because they think the cliche is a red herring. But when they find out it’s for real, they’ll be very dissatisfied.

Judging what’s cliche isn’t always straightforward. However, reading other works in the genre you’re writing in, particularly the very popular or classic works of the genre, will help you discover what patterns to avoid. If a classic work shocked the audience by revealing the butler did it, don’t use the butler.

If you find most of your beta readers knew the answer to your mystery from the start, you have a couple options. You can either make it less obvious – preferably by breaking more stereotypes and cliches – or you can use your original answer as a red herring and create a new one. If you change the answer, I strongly recommend reading through your entire story to make sure everything matches your new reveal.

4. The Nonsensical Reveal

Teen Wolf Season Four: Sure, the big bad had no motive. But see, she was killing people for Peter, who was in the hospital next to her, ranting in a semiconscious state about killing people. She decided to follow his orders for some reason. Mystery solved!

Every night, bizarre things happen in an isolated mountain village. Flat stones with ancient runes appear near doorways. A wild, echoing wail is heard on the wind. Goats are found upside down on the roof of the tavern. As the heroes work to uncover the secret, it only gets stranger. The runes disappear as soon as they call a scholar to look at them. A goat that is removed from the roof is later found dead. Villagers are ready to flee when they discover it’s all just old man McHoggerson sleepwalking. He has these flat stones because he’s been using them to lay out a new walkway. Studying runes is his hobby, and he throws goats in the air to stay fit. That explains everything. Everything.

Implicit in every story is a promise that mysteries will be sufficiently explained before the end. Unfortunately, many storytellers make more promises than they can keep. Especially if you’re inventing the tale as you go along, it’s easy to create mysteries that are enticing in the moment while leaving yourself with no plausible explanation for everything that’s happened. Seeing a bunch of bizarre events will only raise audience anticipation for your explanation, making them that much angrier when you can’t deliver.

These failures usually happen because of a lack of coordination between different parts of the story. If you’re up for planning ahead, this is where it really pays off. Even a vague idea of what’s causing strange occurrences can help keep them in the realm of plausibility. If planning cramps your style, I recommend keeping your mysteries simple. If it’s clear that someone is stealing children, and it’s clear that they are doing it to extract magical energy, then it won’t be too hard to explain who the culprit is. However, if you have random, impossible things happening, you’ll have a really tough time explaining them all.

5. The Who Cares Reveal

Stylized kissing from the cover of Plus One Plus One: After a long struggle, the main characters fall hopelessly in love. Then they discover the shocking reveal: they were pen pals before the story started! They continue being in love.

A group of struggling workers all lose their jobs at the clock factory, forcing them to beg for scraps on the street. Then they begin to vanish, kidnapped by body snatchers who sell them to be used in vicious experiments. The police won’t help; they’ve been paid off. So the impoverished heroes gather who they have left, ready to go after the villain themselves. They follow the body snatchers and enter a freakish laboratory. There they fight dead but reanimated friends and witness even crueler experiments. After a struggle, they corner the villain. She confesses – she’s the one who bought the clock factory and laid them off! The heroes look at each other and shrug before getting their revenge.

For a reveal to be effective, it has to mean something to the story. A reveal that doesn’t change what choices the characters make will fall flat. If you slip in the reveal casually, it may not do too much damage. But the audience can tell when the storyteller thinks something is important. If you make a big deal out of something that doesn’t matter, it will break audience immersion and make you look silly.

To judge whether a reveal is important, consider what would be different if you didn’t make it. Would the story unfold in exactly the same way? Then it’s no big deal. You can say it in passing if you want, but don’t make it dramatic. Would an enemy be a close friend instead? At the least, that’s an important character moment. If everything would unfold in the same way, but only because your characters already know the reveal, see section #2.


Everyone loves a great reveal, but your story doesn’t need a super surprise twist to impress your audience. In the end, less flashy things such as a likable protagonist and a tense plot will be earn you the most fans.

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Comments

  1. Martin Christopher

    The Obvious Reveal had me think of Final Fantasy 13. Everyone agrees that the gameplay is really bad, but the story had some real potential. But it all fell apart for me when I defeated what I had always been assumed to be a pawn for the real villain and the game just ended with that. I thought after fighting him the real story would begin, but no. That was it.

    The only reveal I got was that there never was a mystery in the first place.

  2. GeniusLemur

    I’d say the reaver reveal in Serenity was #4 with a side of #2.

    • Leon

      I thought the reavers were a psychotic and highly motivated side effect of the happy gass. Is there more to it?

      • GeniusLemur

        The reavers being rage zombies who can someone still fly and maintain spaceships and the absurd nuts and bolts of their creation is the #4. The #2 is that River knows the secret of the reavers and that’s what drives her psychosis, despite it never being hinted at in her ramblings in the TV series and only coming out as a key word or two in the movie.

        • Leon

          I take it for granted that anything involving zombies or the undead will be absurd : )

  3. Vampirous

    I think Amon is a terrible example to use, while he doesn’t have a reason to hide his identity from the viewer, he has a few of in world reasons to do so.

    He’s a bender and doesn’t want to be recognised as one, all it would take is for someone to out him from his former village and everyone in his group would turn on him. His brother is on the council and would be able to out him immediately as a bender as well as being the taboo of a blood bender.

    So he’s got good reasons to wear a mask and it’s got nothing to do with a reveal. He reminds me of Char from Gundam

    • Tony

      It’s also similar to Darth Vader. Of course, the audience wouldn’t recognise his face — and other characters likely wouldn’t either, considering how disfigured he is — but he specifically feels the need to hide that disfigurement, as well as shield his face along with the rest of his damaged body.

  4. Tizzy

    I’ve read my fair share of obvious and nonsensical reveals. I just keep thinking there will be more at the end, another twist or information that helps it to make sense. So frustrating when there isn’t and you realise that’s all there is.

  5. SunlessNick

    When I saw the picture of Amon, I was sure it was going to be about the reveal that he was a waterbender. Which wasn’t much of a reveal in that I’d already surmised his claims about being chosen by spirits was a lie (although I’d guessed a more advanced and permanent chi-blocking rather than bloodbending) – and it didn’t add much to the level of hypcrisy he’d already shown.

    SPOILERS FOR THE LAST JEDI, JUST IN CASE

    On the other hand, I think Rey’s parentage was an exception that proves the rule for the some guy twist. Almost all the viewers were expecting her ancestry to be something important – and so was she, because important parents made it more likely they had an important reason for abandoning her.
    Her parents being nobodies who sold her changes everything for Rey, forcing her once and for all to find her sense of self elsewhere – and at the same time forces the audience to question the assumptions we’d formed about Force power and who gets it. That’s everything a good twist/reveal should do.
    But that’s why it proves the rule – the reveal *means* something in way that most of that kind don’t.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Rey’s parents being no one in TLJ is a deliberate subversion. It gives us an answer to “where did Rey come from,” just not the answer we were expecting. I love it, it’s probably my favorite part of the TLJ. The only thing that pisses me off about it is that it was delivered in such a way as to be easily retconable, and they do that then the cool subversion will turn to ash in my mouth.

  6. E S Lavall

    The Dresden files is often guilty of no. 2, Dresden goes to fight Big Bad in a hopeless battle but TaDa he has an ace up his sleeve that he didn’t tell us about. Because the series is in 1st person it makes it feel like he’s cheating.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, in 1st person view, that kind of reveal is deadly. It’s always bad writing to pull something out of thin air, but if you’re essentially putting the reader in the mind of the hero, keeping information from the reader is a deadly sin.

  7. Greg

    Comics have a bad habit of doing this sometimes. Marvel’s Hobgoblin is a good example. When they revealed his identity, I was outraged because the reveal didn’t match the clues given in the comic where he first appeared.

    Then they retconned it, but it still didn’t make a lot of sense.

    • Cay Reet

      Well, with comics it could be explained with writer changes or changes to the plot over time (meaning the first hints were written before a revision of the plot). But, yes, it’s pretty annoying when the story points you at one person, just to give you another.

  8. GeniusLemur

    There are several serials with a #5. For instance 1943’s The Masked Marvel held the identity of the masked marvel back until the last chapter. The question is “Who is the masked marvel? Is it Bob, Frank, Terry, or Jim?”
    The problem is all four of them play an identical role in the plot, dress the same, speak the same, and act the same. The masked marvel, meanwhile, does exactly what Bob, Frank, Terry, and Jim do anyway, except wearing a mask.
    So why would anyone care which one is the masked marvel?

    • Cay Reet

      Shocking reveal: it was Jamal all along.

  9. Tony

    On the other hand, hiding something that the protagonist knows can indeed work in certain cases — say, a Tomato Surprise (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TomatoSurprise).

  10. Mélanie Sonnemeunier

    Great Article ! Reveals are so difficult to craft… but amazing when done right
    The Some Guy Reveal made me think about A study in Pink (Sherlock episode 1). It is revealed that the culprit is just some guy, but it was foreshadowed and I consider it a cool subversion of the trope.
    There is also The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie were it is stated from the start that the “villain” is mundane and forgettable – and that’s what’s making him so difficult to find.

  11. Mouse

    Was anyone else annoyed by the Frozen reveal of Hans? I mostly don’t mind how it was handled, especially fore-shadowing with how many brothers he had, but there was one key moment I can’t stand. What I hated was how, after Ana runs off and he falls into the water with his horse, he has this sweet, love-struck look. Giving him a villainous smile would have been too obvious, yes. But giving him this look makes it seem obvious the writers were specifically trying to trick us just to trick us. I know writers and readers both love twists, but I hate it when they turn into something that is so ‘designed’ rather than organic. Just my opinion

    • Cay Reet

      That’s because it was designed. Originally, Hans was to be the hero and the prince and Elsa was to be the villain (Frozen is based off the Snow Queen, after all), but the song Let It Go changed the creators perception of Elsa, so they decided that this time around, the love between the sisters would save the day and Hans was recast as the villain. In some scenes, that still comes through.

      • Mouse

        That’s all well and good. The sister love aspect is one of the reasons I love frozen. I just don’t like being tricked. And having a twist is different than being tricked. Being tricked is when you are deliberately being misled and given false information to support one reality, so when the alternate reality is revealed, you are angered because it is not supported by the facts. In this case, there were facts to support Hans being evil, such as his distance to the throne, his relationship with his brothers, and his eagerness to marry Anna. That was well done. The only thing, and it’s a small thing, is when he is alone and looks all lovey dovey. This does not support the later conclusion. And one could argue he was thinking about his future and how great everything would turn out for him, but that is a stretch. If they animated this portion before they altered Elsa’s character, they should have cut this two unnecessary seconds of the scene. Again, it’s small and perhaps pointless to get caught up in, but this few seconds really ruined the flow of storytelling for me. Everything in art is ‘designed’, but it pulls you out of the story when it is so blatant. I believe the best storytelling happens when you forget an author even created it, and it becomes an experience.

  12. GKeefe

    I HATE number three.
    I feel I’m often seeing a variant on that reveal, that goes something like; “Yes, I evil-jerk was secretly the evil villain all along! But I am not the MAIN villain, I am just the evil servant of the evil main villain! To find out who or what this main villain really is you’ll have to buy the second book of the series, sorry.”
    Piss on your second book.

  13. Ryan

    Thanks for this. I watched Warehouse 13 for the first time recently, and was really disappointed by a Some Guy reveal. He had the hidden identity, intimate knowledge of the Warehouse… and turned out to be no-one in particular.

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