Disclaimer: SPOILERS ahead if you live under a rock! Also, that art belongs to James Hance. None of that “pasting art and claiming it’s mine” nonsense.
Sometimes, I work from the ground up, thinking of a topic and then finding examples to fit around it. At other times, I work top-down, looking at my list of saved examples and finding something to say about them. Also, using them as an excuse to share images like these.
Today is one of those top-down examples, drawing from two of geekdom’s favourite tragic dark characters: Darth Vader and Severus Snape.
These two are popular for a number of shared reasons. They’re ‘dark’ characters in style and personality, they have tragic backstories, they smack the heroes around (either physically or verbally), and lost love is a major motivator in their lives.
And that’s what I’ll be talking about today: Reveals.
So, crash course. Reveals are exactly what they say on the tin. Any halfway competent story will keep some mysteries in reserve in the name of pacing, structure, and purpose, giving readers and characters something that will surprise them or even something that becomes their objective.
But rather than talking about these various mysteries (true identities, the real scope of things, or the fundamental weakness/backstory of the bad guy), I’ll be going into the moment they’re brought to light. Not what they ARE, but what they ACHIEVE.
At the bare minimum, a reveal moves the plot along, uncovering what the characters need to continue. More memorably, however, they are a major (if hidden) component of the entire storyline. They can give greater motivations (such as learning who REALLY killed your father), drastically change loyalties and objectives (like when you find out the guy you worked for is actually EVIL), and either drastically complicate or simplify ongoing situations (which either could be solved with the reveal or are messed up because they developed with faulty info). For instance, depending on the author, revealing the true heir to the throne can either end all hostilities or lead to even greater bloodshed as factions dig in as they support the candidate they backed.
A story can either present itself ignorant of this, showing things at face value, or it can be keenly aware there’s something missing and make it part of the tone.
Notably, Star Wars and Harry Potter use the former approach for awhile: The first movie and the early books present themselves entirely at face value. In Episode IV there is no foreshadowing of Vader’s true identity, and he is treated entirely as the traitor student who killed Anakin. Similarly, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone does reveal that Snape has been working to HELP Harry, but doesn’t explain or foreshadow as to why (unless you believe that obsessive theory about the question he asked in Potions Class), and until Book 7, we basically assume he’s acting out of a begrudging sense of pride or loyalty to Hogwarts. Contrast these with things like A Song of Ice and Fire, where there is a lot more foreshadowing and awareness of mysteries from the very start.
However, don’t mistake a lack of PORTRAYAL for a lack of PLANNING. This is only known to the actual creators, of course, but many are actually fully aware of the big twists in at least an abstract manner at the earliest stages of writing. Some, in fact, deliberately misrepresent things for a bigger impact, like George Lucas keeping the truth under wraps until it was time to shoot the scene itself.
So that gives you an idea on what reveals are like. But how does that relate to these two characters, the focal points of those reveals?
As you can tell from that title, I’m actually not that fond of Snape’s reveal. You know, when he essentially plugs his memories into Harry by force, hiding among them the conveniently essential pieces of information he needs to win. IN THE LAST BOOK.
Don’t get me wrong, Rowling does keep us guessing about his true loyalties throughout, and the backstory itself does make him a lot more poignant and honourable than he lets on. She also has A LOT of moving parts to foreshadow and resolve, as well as protagonists which are only teens who are equal parts hormones and bad decisions. By itself, it’s not bad. In the greater scheme, the web of relationships is great.
But there are two issues I have with the execution.
Firstly, it actually doesn’t have THAT much foreshadowing, so it doesn’t actually make much sense. At least none which are easily available to your average reader. Up to this point, all we have to go on is that Snape is loyal(?) to Dumbledore, hates James Potter (who was a jerkoff jock jerkface to him), yet hates that James saved his life and so possibly feels a little indebted. That and maybe a bit of faith that people have some inherent goodness to them?
Now we learn he was in love with Lily all this time? Where did THAT come from? There was NO mention whatsoever about his romantic inclinations as far as I can tell, not even in Book 6, not even from friggin’ Sirius or Remus who might have mentioned “Oh yeah, seemed like he fancied Lily, didn’t he?” The only thing we have to REALLY go on is that his Patronus is now the same as hers. And no, I don’t count his first question which mentions asphodel and wolfsbane as if he routinely structures his lesson plans based on his personal issues.
The problem isn’t the lack of historical records, I’m fine with Snape keeping it VERY much under wraps and swearing Dumbledore to secrecy. The problem is that the secret is kept TOO well, with very little to suggest that THIS was his main motivation. Nothing, no comments, no rumours, no involuntary tics, give us any hint that there is more to Snape than spite and reluctant honour.
My second issue is that the reveal, though it moves the plot forward, doesn’t actually shake up or clear up anything about the past. It only makes it murkier, and happens too late to influence anything but an epilogue.
Now, to be fair, it’s true we only get perspectives from Team Snape or Team James, so there’s little room for nuance when the only perspectives of the past are when they’re at their worst or their best. But that IS a problem because Rowling makes a big deal about the legacy of Jame and Lily, and what it means to their friends and Harry.
In books 1 to 4, we’re under the impression that James and Lily had a loving, idyllic marriage and were absolutely wonderful people. All fair and good, I think that’s where they ended up. Then for the rest of the series, we learn James was a jerk jock and Snape was his victim, and Lily wanted nothing to do with James at first. That is a SEVERE turnaround, and even Harry takes note of that. The only reassurance he gets is his parents’ friends telling him “It was a phase, he grew out of it” and nothing else.
No anecdotes, no shared memories, nothing to redeem James. No, those moments go to Snape, who gets increasingly sympathetic at the expense of James becoming increasingly demonised. Yes, much like those fanfics which make Malfoy a saint and Ron a bastard. And as a result of this lopsided treatment, you get people fantasising that Snape was Lily’s true love, despite the fact that he was actually a rather selfish, entitled wanker who had to undergo horrific loss to have some character development, and also despite the fact that it really cheapens James and Lily by making her ‘settle’ as if she is incapable of making her own choices of who to love.
And like I said: It happens too late to do anything. Snape’s angst has messed up the past, going from “things aren’t black and white” to the rubbish act of “black is now white and white is now black”, but it’s far too late into the end of the story, after all the adventure and reveals, to do anything about it except say “Well, guess I’m naming my son after him.”
So those are my issues with Snape’s big reveal(s). And they largely have to do with messing up our expectations without offering solutions. But how does Vader measure up to this?
Darth Dad Jokes
And here we are with THE reveal in our collective memory. The one which will have its picture next to the word in our personal definitions. Vader is Luke’s father? WHAT?
Now, while I’m tempted to do nothing but gush about it, I’ll hold my horses and you’ll hold yours. If I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do this RIGHT. How DOES Vader’s reveal measure up against Snape and my comments?
First, let’s look at the buildup. Episode IV, he gets none, we hear he killed all the Jedi AND Anakin. He is Luke’s object of vengeance, and he is gonna Inigo Montoya the shit out of that. What does he get in Episode V?
Well, it’s not what HE gets. It’s what LUKE gets. Freaky vision quest in a tree where Vader’s helmet blows up and reveals Luke? I’d say that’s a lot more specific than “My magic spirit animal is now a doe like your mum’s.” Yoda saying the Dark Side is more seductive, quick to join you in a fight, forever will it dominate your destiny? Gee, that’s a LOT clearer than an alchemical equation! Heck, you even get it in the moments leading up to it in the fight when Vader is trying to recruit Luke, not destroy him. Though on the flip side, I will admit that the circumstances of the reveal itself can test our suspension of disbelief: An entire Order destroyed, and HE’S the sole survivor?
But then again, stories are stories because they often get to downplay realism in the name of dramatic resonance. And while the “one in a million it’s your dad” deal can be as out of nowhere as “oh, by the way I loved your mum all this time”, it has the advantage in having meaningful foreshadowing that makes sense and helps the story’s drama. It’s not about logic in the big picture, but logic in the context.
Yes, it causes a MASSIVE uproar. And yes, it happens at the end of that movie, much like Snape’s reveal happens at the end of the book. But what they BOTH achieve is what twists aim to do: Shock and shake things up.
What lets Vader pull ahead of Snape, though, is this: His reveal happens at a time when it can CONTINUE influencing things.
See, Vader’s reveal isn’t some last minute thing. It’s built up, and it has room to be resolved in AN ENTIRE MOVIE AFTERWARDS. An entire movie where Luke and the audience have had time to process this knowledge and look at things with fresh eyes. Harry could only name his son after Snape; Luke got to square things off with his mentors, redeem his father, and help save the galaxy.
And speaking of his mentors, that’s another thing about how Vader’s reveal is treated compared to Snape’s. While I thought Snape’s reveals progressively cheapened the legacy of James and Lily, I can appreciate that Vader’s didn’t drastically damage Yoda’s or Obi-Wan’s. That’s because all their previous appearances were SUBSTANTIAL in shaping their reputations, making it believable that THIS was how they were now: wise, compassionate, though set in their ways and thinking death was the only solution.
Unlike the halfhearted “he grew out of it and she came around” testimonies for James and Lily, we SEE Obi-Wan and Yoda guiding Luke to the best of their abilities. This both STRENGTHENS the reveal (“HOW COULD THEY LIE TO LUKE?”) and SOFTENS the blow (“They must have had a reason, let’s hear them out”). Some people may not approve of them lying to Luke and leading him to believe Vader had to die (which is fair), but the whole thing is generally dealt with in a way which preserved their dignity and values: Mistaken, but well-intentioned, in a no-win situation trying to spare their last hope from a painful truth, torn between treating him as the last Jedi and the son of Anakin.
And then I reveal…MY LAST POINT!
So there you have it. My attempts to dissect the reveals of Snape and Vader, and my opinions as to why one is weaker than the other. But whatever your opinion or attachment to these stories, I hope I’ve revealed some things about what makes reveals strong, and how you can apply them to stories. Namely, that they need some proper (but not obvious) foreshadowing, and they cannot come at the expense of what else is precious in your story (shake it up, but don’t break it).
Not convinced? Then let’s try an exercise: Swap the situations around.
Imagine if Snape’s reveal happened earlier, in the MIDDLE of the series. Harry learns this, forever changing how he looks at the teacher he hated. Snape has to deal with the fact that the truth is known, and all the emotions he tried to hide away and sublimate are brought out and forced to be resolved. Snape and Harry now have two or three books to deal with their strained and heavily changed relationship. And what if, as a result, the two develop a more sincere bond, coming to terms with the REAL truth to right the wrongs of the past? What if Darth Vader became Obi-Wan?
By contrast, imagine Star Wars. Luke knows nothing. He has been lied to aaaaaall the way to the end, where he deals Vader a mortal blow. The Emperor cackles and trolls Luke by revealing “By the way, he’s your father.” This drives Luke closer to the Dark Side and, with only about half an hour left in the movie (two thirds of which will be spent on the space and ground battles), Vader has to wheeze out some bullshit about “No, don’t make the mistakes I did” or whatever, some line, it doesn’t matter because it HAS to be enough to make Luke renounce the Dark Side and defeat the Emperor. And wow, that happened in the span of like a few seconds, going from “KILL KILL KILL” to “Peace out, man.” Oh, and now we also hate Obi-Wan and Yoda for manipulating Luke into being their murder weapon.
And these are just two examples made by simply swapping the pacing around. There’s a lot we can do with our own reveals, whether we work from the top or the bottom.
Do we make it the crucial storyline, the thing everyone is seeking to uncover, making the reveal the very end? Or do we place it in the middle and split the story in half, giving us time to deal with the reveal and reassess the past in a new light?
And furthermore, does the reveal even have to be important? Do we want to keep the reveals as a B-plot for supporting characters, a plot hook for future depth? Do we do as these examples did and leave absolutely NO hints at the start, lulling audiences into a false sense of security?
There’s so much to be done with a reveal, but at the heart of it is this: They should represent a MAJOR change or end for something, whether it is a single character or the whole world. And ironically, a reveal is not just about the reveal itself, but EVERYTHING ELSE around it. And although reveals are often climaxes, they must also be PACED so that there is time to process and resolve them.
As the author or creator, it’s up to YOU to decide what’s important in your story and to keep an eye on every part of it at all times. If you neglect, forget, or misrepresent it, trust me, there WILL be people on your case for that. Remember: Whatever your intentions or hidden plans, it’s what you SHOW the audience (through, uh, telling them with your words) that will be their primary lens for understanding your story.
That doesn’t mean you treat your characters with kid gloves, of course. It’s fine to have a reveal utterly overturn worlds and worldviews if that’s the sort of story you wanna write. But what’s important is making sure we still have something familiar intact and constant to keep us in the same story or ease us into the new one. Something like a secure supporting cast they can count on, or enough world-building that you have an idea of who to trust and who to distrust. And to do this, you’ll need to really plan things out, laying down enough groundwork to both hint at the reveal and preserve what you wanted to remain intact, along with precisely how disoriented you want the audience to feel.
And that’s the tricky balancing act called writing and art. Part of it’s creativity, part of it’s effort, and another part of it is planning. Because those who plan…don’t plan to fail (nobody does that), but tend to because they’re Chaotic Stupid and didn’t come up with a long-term plan.