The Big Reveal – Speculative Fiction and Getting the Shapeshifting Fairy Hippopotami Right

I couldn’t find any pics of shapeshifting fairy hippos. Sue me.

My first love will always be historical fiction. That doesn’t mean that I write lots of it. Contrary to what you may expect if you follow this blog, all of my published work to date has been speculative fiction, specifically five horrors, one fantasy and two science-fantasies. You might think that I’ve become accustomed to writing the “Big Reveal” – that moment when characters unaware of the abnormal horror/science/fantasy element discover the truth and then come to terms with it. 

I can assure you “accustomed” isn’t the word I’d use.

I find the Big Reveal to be consistently the most difficult writing hurdle I’ve ever had to overcome. It requires the balancing skills of a trapeze master. On the one hand, the characters must react in a way that is consistent with their own worldview, whilst at the same time being sufficiently shocked that the reader can still empathise them. This is made more difficult by the fact that the reader, having bought the book, is likely to be already well aware of whatever the Big Reveal is. You, as the author, have also known about it all along. Despite this the characters must act as though they were totally unaware up to that point, despite both their creator and the audience knowing.

And then, on the other hand you can’t afford to overegg the pudding. Readers will want to see a bit of realistic shock, but they won’t want page upon page detailing your character’s silent mental trauma as they come to terms with the existence of shapeshifting fairy hippopotami. Melodrama should be scoured from the manuscript – no swooning, fainting or spewing unless the characterisation absolutely demands it.

The biggest difficulty, mounted atop these problems, is how much I, the author struggle, to put myself in my creation’s shoes. To be honest I don’t really know how I would react if cyber-apes from space started landing in Edinburgh tonight. Perhaps the fact that we’ve been conditioned towards ETs for the past 30-40 years means I wouldn’t be all that amazed. Or perhaps I’d crap in my pants and spend the next month hiding in the bathtub, crying. The situation is just too abstract, too far-fetched for me to easily translate it into my character’s emotions.

All this has come to the forefront as I forge ahead with my current Urban Fantasy project. Does the heroine, when she discovers the truth, carry on kicking butt with nary a blink of an eye? How much time do I devote to her shock and horror? Where exactly is that line between believability and good reading?

Perhaps you, the reader, can tell me. Is the Big Reveal best handled piece by piece or all at once? How traumatized is too traumatized? Do people reacting with gaping mouths make you cringe? And what were the best Reveals you’ve ever read, and why? 

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Big Reveal – Speculative Fiction and Getting the Shapeshifting Fairy Hippopotami Right

  1. First thanks for this perspective. I may need to consider looking at big reviels to see if I need such.

    I am not sure that there has to be a big reveal.
    Let me try a few examples:
    The Complete Werewolf has a gradual set: the magician is real, the protag is were, and the implications of that. The surprise/reviel is when he turns for the first time, but he is over that soon. Moreso since he is a bit drunk when he first turns.
    DragonSong by Anne Mc. does not seem to have a big reveal. Well maybe when the heroing protag is accepted for what she is and can be.
    1633 by Eric Flint has the ring of fire, and everyone gets to react, but since the action keeps going almost into battle, they get to react later. And most of the time they do not react to the ring of light, but to a gradual realization that they are in the 1600s not the 1990s.
    The Illuminatus Trilogy hides its reveal so well that you have to read it several times to find it.
    The webcomic Digger, Hugo and other award winner, has a series of reviels. Digger herself must slowly come to know that only she can do what needs to be done, but with help and allies.

    • Very interesting. I’ve not thought outside of the box enough on this subject – it appears I should try my hand at the smooth transition you mention in a few of the examples rather than attempting to force it. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Pingback: The Dark Myth of Writer’s Block | Robbie MacNiven

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