A literary trope in a story is like a cliché with impunity. It’s a recognizable convention, but if the author knows what to do, it can be used to great effect. Any writer looking for ways to add useful details and situations to a narrative will find tropes helpful. As such, this series of posts analyzes the endless well of information that is TVTropes.org (from a literary perspective).
TV Tropes defines the trope as follows:
It appears that a reveal is being set up… but there’s no reveal in the end.
Can be either frustrating or hilarious, depending on how badly the viewer wants the reveal, and how far the viewer was strung along expecting it.
This can be a fun trope to employ. It can also be deadly. I believe that The Simpsons does this best with its consistent “unreveal” of the actual location of Springfield, USA. Though some people wrongly suggest that Matt Groening recently revealed the actual location of Homer’s Springfield (he only revealed the inspiration for the name), the truth is that the show has consistently refused to tell us what state the Simpson family lives in.
The reason why this ends up being so memorable is because it doesn’t matter. The location of Springfield would be entirely insignificant if it was revealed to be a specific state; it’s the constant refusal to confirm the state that makes it funny. Contrast this with something like Lost in Translation, with its famous unreveal of the whisper-in-the-ear statement and you see where this trope can be annoying. I hate that ear whisper ending. But it’s up to the viewer to decide and contemplate! No it’s not: bite me, Sofia Coppola. It’s pretentious and grating. Community recently highlighted this trope when Troy prepares to leave the group for good and farewells Abed with a similarly unvoiced whisper in the ear moment. Abed then tells us exactly what he said: something to the effect of ‘I know you hate when this happens in movies, so I won’t do it.”
Why You Need “The Unreveal”
Your greatest power as the storyteller is that you have and the reader has not.
Never let the reader forget this. If readers think they have what you have (the secrets to what happens next) then they have power over your story that you do not want them to have. Then you are weak.
The unreveal allows you to play with this unholy power. It says, I know you want what I have but I won’t give it to you because I can do that and it’s fun to make you squirm. If it’s done with something as insignificant as the location of Springfield, it can be fun. If it’s done a la Lost in Translation and vital-ish information isn’t given out because ‘it’s more deep that way’ then it’s an abuse of your power.
Play with what the reader can and can’t know. This will make them feel more rewarded when they get what they can have and keep them reading for what they never will get.
How to Make Sure this Literary Trope Doesn’t Become a Cliche
A few guidelines:
- Don’t Wilson It: The unreveal of Wilson’s face in Home Improvement is a classic example of this cliche, but it was so overused (every single episode) that it lost its charm after a while. When they finally did reveal Wilson’s face, it wasn’t worth it. Keep this as something that your astute readers will pick up on but isn’t so in the foreground that every reader can see what you’re doing.
- Use this for serious purposes only when the reader can infer–with reasonable accuracy–what the ‘reveal’ would just make obvious: Consider the greatest unreveal of all time–Iago’s motivation in Othello. At the end of the play, Iago steadfastly refuses to tell Othello (and the audience) why he does what he does. He ends up being entirely motiveless. Unlike Lost in Translation, Othello allows us any abundant array of resources for inferring Iago’s motivation. While we cannot ever answer the question fully, it’s excellent work debating all the finer points. Shakespeare makes us play detective rather than Scooby-dooing it. In the end, we may want to accept that he’s an agent of chaos. Someone who wants to watch the world burn. He may also be any number of things (in love with Othello, racist, etc.). The point is that we have a great deal of information to argue on about. This is a deadly serious unreveal and a deeply satisfying one–somehow.
As a good writer, you want to litter your story with repeated patterns and easter eggs. This is not just for mysteries; this is what makes reading and re-reading your work an experience. Having a repeated piece of information that you refuse to reveal to the reader is one of those things that isn’t absolutely essential but works to give your work an added punch. Try it out.
Who are some of your favorite “unreveals”?
- The Common Tongue
- Chekhov’s Gunman
- Mr. Exposition
- Cassandra Truth
- Bad Dreams
- One Dialogue, Two Conversations
- As You Know
- Laymen’s Terms
- Even Evil Has Standards
- Iconic Item