How writers are like magicians
If you've seen the movie "The Prestige" or read a great New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik about magic, then you've heard that most magic tricks have a highly formulaic procedure that must be adhered to for the trick to be properly astounding. In the movie, phase one is called "The Pledge." In this stage, the magician makes a promise of some sort that something extraordinary will happen. Writers of fiction also make a pledge - they set us off down a track with the authority of a voice and setting, giving us a promise of what kind of story we're going to read. There are many small ways the writer makes a pledge to us in the early pages of a story that this will be a story worth reading.
The second stage of many magic tricks is sometimes called "the turn." In the turn, something extraordinary happens - often, something disappears. This is the beginning of the magic trick, and it's what pulls us in. Stories, too, have a turn, where something becomes suddenly or gradually urgent, where the stakes are raised, where we understand that real danger (or emotional danger) is at play in the world. The turn is when we feel suspense tugging us on. The magic of storytelling has gripped us.
Finally, there is a phase the movie called "the prestige", or what I'm calling "the reveal." For magicians, it's where the disappeared thing returns. As the movie "The Prestige" tells us, seeing something disappear isn't satisfying by itself - the audience demands that it return, as proof that magic is connected to us, capable of affecting our world. This moment of the reveal is essential for fiction writers as well. The reveal is the moment when a character cries out to us from the page, or makes us realize, "Ah - this is why their marriage will fail after all." It's the moment where either we or the character is allowed to see with great clarity what the world needs, why it is flawed, and whether there is a way of fixing things.
How to put a reveal in your writing
As the analogy of the magic trick makes clear, a reveal only works if there has been some restraint on the part of the writer beforehand. The magician must withhold the true machinations of the trick; we're always a little bit disappointed to learn how simple miraculous-looking illusions are. In writing, you've got to use that "show, don't tell" rule and hold just enough back to give us a burst of truth near the end of your story. Keep us from being totally sure why something has happened or what is really at its heart. Keep us on the fence, wondering if things will work out.
Are you a magician with words? How do you use surprise and showmanship to hold readers? Tell us about it in our forums, and send your work to Teen Ink!