Two men each have a box. Both are selling tickets for a peek inside their box. Both make extravagant claims about how impressed you’ll be with what you’ll see. But neither is willing to tell you what they've got in there.
Roll up, roll up. The stupendous, astonishing, one in a lifetime, miracle in a box. Get your ticket here. Be the first to see what’s in the Box o’ Dreams.
Now, if I tell you that one man has got something pretty amazing in his box, and the other has half a dog turd, how can you tell which is the box worth buying a ticket for?
The answer is you can’t. It’s just as easy to make hyperbolic promises about something rubbish as it something awesome if you don’t have to back up your claims. So, if you happen to actually have something really cool in your box, how do you let people know you’re the real deal?
In writing a story, it can be tempting to excuse a limp opening because there’s an amazing revelation just around the corner. It may not make sense right now, but stick with it and four chapters from now you’ll be stunned by what occurs. Trust me, I wouldn’t drag you through three hundred pages for a big letdown. Roll up, roll up.
But you have to look at it from the punter’s perspective. They don’t what great things you have planned for the future. They know you think you’ve got a worthwhile pay-off, but that’s no guarantee. To them, you’re just another attention seeking loud mouth making outrageous claims with no substance.
The concern for many aspiring writers is that if they give away what’s in their box, then why would anyone pay to see it? And the answer is, it depends on what’s in the box.
If one guy is selling you on the idea of how happy you’ll be on peeking inside his box, and the other fellow is telling you he has a gerbil in a wife-beater that can act out scenes for A Streetcar Named Desire, word perfect, which would box you pay to open?
Revealing information only works against you if it’s boring information. And if that’s the case, delaying the reveal as long as possible only makes it more annoying when you finally find out what it is.
Of course, the gerbil could turn out to be a terrible method actor, mumbling all his lines so he’s barely intelligible. And then the punter might get upset with the man because he didn’t produce the goods as promised. It’s much easier to pin someone down if they’ve been specific about what they were going to do. ‘Amazing’ means different things to different people. A gerbil that screams “Stella!” is going to be judged the same way by pretty much everyone.
But that’s a good thing. If a story doesn’t work if the big twist is silly or unbelievable, finding out as soon as possible is what a writer needs to know. It may be painful and embarrassing, but it’s part of the process of getting better.
Not being exact about what’s going on may seem like a good way to hook a reader into keep reading, but when there are hundreds of other guys making similar claims about the fantastical thing they’ve got to show you, the only one worth buying a ticket from is the guy who’s confident enough to tell you what he’s got up front.
Once you’ve got their attention, then you can afford to be a little more mysterious and play around with what you reveal when. But there needs to be enough going on at the start of a story (even if it’s unrelated to the main plot) to let the punters know they’re going to be getting their money’s worth.
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