Among my other hobbies, I play tabletop role-playing games.* Run them sometimes, too. If I want to be all responsible about it, I can tell you about how both playing and running RPGs is a great way to build writing skills; after all, you create stories and characters and events and then watch them play out. I play for fun, sure, but never overlook an opportunity to hone the skills, right?
Right now I’m playing a game run by a friend of mine, Spiderman Dave**. And, I have to tell you, Dave is the fucking master of the slow reveal.
When we made our characters, we made skill sets and character traits and personalities, but not backstories. We didn’t know enough about the world Dave had created to do so with any believability, so we left it to him. And in the months since we’ve started playing, he’s dropped in bits and pieces about our pasts here and there. Just enough to let us play the characters convincingly, but not enough to know the whole story. So we’re left with questions. A lot of them. Why are extremely high-ranked military officers searching so hard for a single deserter? Who put the exceptionally high price on the bar owner’s head? Why did an operative leave his loving fiancé and join a mission that will see him dead within five years? Why send a mission to an obscure corner of the universe with no hope of success?
All those questions. And, I don’t know about anyone else, but at least half the reason I’m playing is to find out the goddamned answers. The combat’s fun, and my character does have an awful lot of shiny toys, but the questions are what keep me coming back. Curiosity: I has it. In fucking spades.
Works in other fiction, too. Questions lead the reader on. Hell, look at Citizen Kane*** . Fucking ‘Rosebud’? However you feel about that movie, you have to admit that it poses a question early on which is not answered until the end, and that question digs at your brain.
That bit’s important, too; I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of keeping your promises. The answers have to fit. There has to be a pay-off. But ask those questions early and then let them dangle in the reader’s mind. This works especially well if it’s something the characters already know; people rarely need to talk about something that they know, so the long reveal makes sense. If you’re just hiding something for the sake of hiding it, then it doesn’t work and the reader feels like you’re being a cock.
But with the right questions asked at the right time, you can lead a reader right through the story you’ve written. Just make sure the answer’s not a goddamned sled.
*For the non-nerds among you, this includes things like Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Rifts…all that stuff that requires character sheets and dice and spare time. Hell of a lot of fun if you’ve never tried it.
**Thus named to distinguish him from the other Daves I know: Uncle Dave, Tattoo Dave, Fur-Pants Dave, I-Nailed-His-Hat-To-My-Door-With-A-Pocket-Knife Dave…
***Apologies for using such a tired, over-used reference, but I didn’t want to spoil things for people by using a newer one. Frankly, if you don’t know the ending of Citizen Kane by now, you haven’t been paying attention.