Surprise or suspense?

Pierre Boulle’s novel, Planet of the Apes, has a brilliant reveal that could only have been achieved in a novel. It would have been impossible to pull it off in a film. The Planet of the Apes film has its own reveal. It’s clever, but different to the novel’s.

The reveal in storytelling is a revelatory insight that gives the reader or viewer a dramatic and unexpected new perspective about the story. The Matrix has a well known reveal, as does Dark City, and Star Wars.

The reveal can take place in different ways:

  • Providing a new perspective about a character
  • Changing the way a character sees the world
  • Altering a character’s fate or circumstance
  • Changing or widenining the context
  • Playing with reality and illusion
  • Creating a framed story, or a story within a story

Incorporating a reveal in a story means the element can’t be used as a device for creating suspense (because it has to be kept secret, until the reveal). A reveal is a surprise. Suspense gives away the surprise in exchange for tension (the reader or viewer not knowing when it’s going to happen).

The reveal in The Matrix is integral to the story. The story wouldn’t make sense without it. The story in Star Wars could make sense without the reveal, but it adds to the impact. Because reveals take effort to setup and might not provide a satisfactory payoff, they can be risky.

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