Writing Tip #12: Reveal Everything and Nothing

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Stories unfold in many different ways. A critical decision you must make when you write fiction is what to reveal and when.

From a simplistic point of view:

  • If you reveal too much, there is nothing left for the reader to imagine. Obviously, this is not ideal.
  • If you don’t reveal enough, the reader has to work too hard to understand the point of the story and what is really happening. This is also not an ideal format for a story.
  • However, if you reveal just enough to entice the reader to read more, and then reveal more interesting details as the story progresses, you can strike a balance. You can give readers enough information to entice them forward, without overwhelming them with details and backstory.

Let's Explore How to Reveal Story Details

In The Master Class topic, 16 Fiction Writing Tips, the famous writer David Mamet says:

Withhold information from your readers. When writing fiction, only give readers the information they need to know in the moment. Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory in writing is to show your readers just the tip of the iceberg. The supporting details—like backstory—should remain unseen, just like the mass of an iceberg under the water’s surface. This prevents readers from getting overwhelmed with information and lets them use their imagination to fill in the blanks.

What he is saying is that the information you provide helps the reader to see the full picture. This is what I mean by "reveal everything and nothing." Only include the details that are critical to the story, and only when they are needed, and let the reader fill in the rest.

An Analogy

This makes so much sense when you think about it. When you first get interested in something, it is likely because of the highlights, not because you read an in-depth report.

A good analogy is when you go to visit a relative who starts talking at length about the past and showing you stacks of picture albums. You might try to listen politely, but pretty soon you may feel so overwhelmed by everything the relative wants to show you and tell you that you may want to run away.

Great storytellers tell you just enough to get you intrigued, and then they keep dribbling out the deeper details and backstory (if needed) once they have you on the hook.

How to Reveal Everything and Nothing

The most effective storytelling says an amazing amount about a character without saying it. For example, it might show the twitch of an eye to indicate a person is nervous, or a blushing face to show that a person is embarrassed, without providing an explanation about the twitch or the red-tinged cheeks.

This is the essence of the expression, "show, don't tell." (Be sure to read Writing Tip #5, which is all about this concept.)

It is actually important to reveal plenty, but without making it sound like documentation or a legal treatise. As the writer, you have an obligation to help the reader understand what the story is about, and why this particular character is being introduced to us at this particular juncture.

For example, the reader needs:

  • Enough information to determine where the character is in his or her life journey.
  • An understanding of the character’s traits that are relevant to the story.
  • Imagery that puts us in the setting.
  • An introduction to other characters that will populate the story.
  • Most importantly - enough detail to know what the character desires or is trying to overcome, which is also known as the conflict. (For more on conflict, see Writing Tip #2.)

Let’s try this out. I’m going to write two passages about the same character. One will reveal many things immediately. The other will infer the backstory.

Example 1: Details

Johnny McGregor was very smart. He got straight As when he was growing up, much to the delight of his mother, who always wanted him to become a world-renowned scientist. He spent all of his time throughout childhood performing scientific experiments, gazing at the stars through a powerful telescope and writing down scientific observations about beetles and insects. In addition to his studies, Johnny began writing scholarly articles about his experiments and sending them to reputable scientific journals at a young age.

It's really rather boring, isn't it? Now, let's try again, but get into Johnny's head a little more to see what he's thinking.

Example 2: Storytelling

When Johnny McGregor looked out at the night sky, he didn’t just see stars. He saw white dwarves, red dwarves, blue giants and black holes. Back from Harvard for the winter break, he stood in his childhood room, looking out at the mesmerizing winter night, surrounded by his rock and beetle collections, and wondered if the terrible secret experiment was still where he left it all those years ago.

I've attempted to show, in two short writing snippets, how your writing can deliver details in very different ways. The first pretty quickly makes us lose interest because it’s just details, whereas the second method weaves in only the most important of those details in a storytelling style that gets us into the heart of the tale.

We don't have to be told that Johnny is smart, and that he loves science. The details make that clear. And we can see that the fact that he's into science is a part of the plot of the story. We also know why this story must be told now: because something is going to happen that is related to an old experiment that has somehow remained hidden for many years.

I hope this is helpful to you. How do you share details in your stories so you keep the reader’s interest and move the story forward?

Happy writing!

@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.

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If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.

Writing Tip #1: Writing from a Prompt

Writing Tip #2: Adding Conflict

Writing Tip #3: Writing What You Know

Writing Tip #4: Avoiding the Dreaded Info Dump

Writing Tip #5: Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ a Writing Rule?

Writing Tip #6: How Fiction Writing Is Like Weaving

Writing Tip #7: Put It On the Page

Writing Tip #8: What Is a Story Arc?

Writing Tip #9: Should You Plot Your Story?

Writing Tip #10: Don’t Start a Story This Way!

Writing Tip #11: What Is “Writing Voice”?

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