Unit Two: Pacing Revelations
This unit contains four lessons and one worksheet. Work through the content in order.
We’ve discussed how a revelation can be the key to completing your hero’s character arc, but that final revelation alone is not enough.
Characters reject their lies gradually. After all, the belief system that has guided them their entire life is not going to evaporate overnight. Since obstacles (plot) should always challenge the hero’s belief system (character arc), revelations should be sprinkled throughout this plot. When well-placed, these revelations steadily nudge your hero them in the right direction, forcing them to consistently question their lies until they complete that character arc in the final act.
In the classic three act structure, each act can benefit from having one revelation. There are instances when more can also work, but as you plot your book, shooting for one per act is a great starting point. This is what we will strive for in this workshop.
The above graph shows where revelations typically fall in most fiction. Each revelation will serve a very specific purpose, but they all work together to accomplish one goal: Revelations force your hero to realize they are wrong.
When a character realizes they’re wrong, they will change their plans, their goals, and/or their belief systems accordingly. This means that as we plot revelations, we also have to look ahead, considering how these realizations will influence the plot to come.
The hero typically experiences their first revelation toward the end of the first act. What makes this revelation so interesting is that it is often wrong. This early in the story, the hero is rarely even aware of their lies, let alone questioning them. As such, this revelation typically leads the protagonist to double down on their flawed beliefs.
Consider Katniss in The Hunger Games. Her first revelation comes shortly after the reveal that Peeta is the male tribute for District Twelve. The reader learns about her history with “the boy with the bread” (she is in his debt), and while on the train en route to Panem, she has her first revelation: Peeta is too nice and nice is dangerous. As a result of this moment of clarity, she absolves to keep Peeta at a distance. She wants nothing to do with him.
Notice how this revelation is clearly wrong, especially when we look at the lies Katniss needs to reject in order to experience character growth. Her revelation here leads her to make decisions that are counter-productive to the growth arc we want her to take. This sounds detrimental, but it’s actually necessary and purposeful.
Act One is known as the set-up act. As you set-up your story, you are also setting up your character. The misguided revelation that your hero has during this act highlights their lie(s) and the flaws in their belief system. The decision they make in response to this misguided revelation will create conflict and obstacles in the second act.
The misguided revelation typically hits just before or during the point of no return. In many ways, it forces the hero to become a fish out of water, leaving their Normal Life behind for good. They are now committed to succeeding in their goal, and the misguided revelation shapes their plan for how they might accomplish this. Since the revelation is wrong, plot points in act two will actively attack this plan/mindset, until a new revelation forces them to adapt.
When plotting any revelation, it is always useful to look at the key plot points that proceed it. In act one, these are the inciting incident and the point of no return.
Let’s use my novel Vengeance Road as an example:
Inciting Incident: Kate’s father is murdered by the Rose Riders, a notorious gang led by outlaw Waylan Rose. She travels south to find Abe Colton, who her father always told her to visit if something happened to him.
Point of No Return: Abe is dead, but his son Jesse has a letter from Kate’s dad that they’ve been holding for her. In it, Kate learns that her father had a journal with maps to a gold mine. This, she concludes is what Rose was after. The letter urges Kate to stay with Abe and make a new life there.
Misguided Revelation: “I know best.” Kate’s misguided revelation hits as she reads her father’s letter. She rejects her father’s advice to stay with Abe and leaves to track down the gang (the act of leaving is her crossing the point of no return)
I stuff the papers back in the envelope. Stay, he says. Stay!
Like he can command me round when he’s dead and every bit of our past is a lie.
Pa’s right—[gold] does make monsters of men. And women. ‘Cus while I don’t want the riches, I want that gang dead, and I ain’t quitting till each of ‘em’s as cold as that bastard [I killed] in the outhouse. I know exactly where they’re headed and I’ll see that their destination becomes their grave.
(Vengeance Road, p38-39)
Goal/Lie Changes: Kate’s revelation does not change her belief system in the slightest, which is how we know it is misguided. Kate is hurt that her father kept secrets from her and this betrayal leads her to lose some respect for him. It also solidifies her mindset that she knows best and she alone can fix things. She doubles down on her goals, and sets out to track Rose and the gang, firmly believing her lies.
The the misguided revelation should…
By the end of the second act, the hero should experience their second revelation. At this point in the story, they’ve also been confronted with numerous obstacles, which is why the second revelation is hard won. It has been earned in every sense of the word.
Why is this important? Well, if information is simply handed to the hero or discoveries are made without any struggle or setback, the revelation is going to feel too easy. When readers complain about an outcome in a story being too “convenient,” this is often what they are referring to. There wasn’t enough conflict or struggle; the solution was simply provided to the hero or they stumbled upon it by sheer luck.
Putting your hero through the wringer isn’t something authors do simply to torture their characters (and readers)! These trials and tribulations are purposeful. Low moments and devastating setbacks naturally compel the hero to look inward. And introspection is a perfect opportunity for a revelation that forces the hero to seriously question their lie.
In The Hunger Games, by the time Katniss has her second revelation (she must truly play the game to win the game), the revelation feels earned because she has already faced so many challenges (eg: burns, tracker jackers, Peeta aligning himself with the Careers, Rue’s death). She commits to the “star-crossed lovers” story and uses it gain medicine from sponsors and nurse Peeta back to health.
Katniss’s revelation in the second act was earned by her trials in the Arena. And while she doesn’t truly care for Peeta as he cares for her, pretending to be close to him forces her to start to question her lie that opening up and being vulnerable makes you weak. After all, their love story is what makes them stronger. By working together, Katniss and Peeta both may get out of the Games alive.
Act Two is all about confrontation and conflict. As your character fights to achieve their goals, obstacles force them to question their belief system for the first time. The earned revelation should put a substantial crack in their world view. They haven’t rejected their lies fully, especially not the thematic lie, but they are starting to see the flaws in their way of thinking. They’ll carry these doubts into the third and final and act.
The earned revelation typically hits at the end of the second act and it coincides with a slightly shifted goal for the hero. To plot this revelation, look at the key plot points that proceed it: the midpoint and the “all is lost” moment.
Again, let’s use my novel Vengeance Road as an example:
Midpoint: Having stolen back her father’s journal, Kate and her allies (Jesse and Will Colton and Liluye) venture into the Superstition Mountains, following her father’s maps. Kate’s obsessive drive costs her these allies; they bail.
All is Lost: Kate finds Will tortured and hung by Rose. A note left by Rose says he’s holding Jesse hostage. Kate confronts Rose and manages to save Jesse, but he’s gravely injured and close to death.
Earned Revelation: “My quest for revenge is only causing more death and loss.” Kate’s earned revelation hits shortly after her all is lost moment, when she’s at Liluye’s stronghold and waiting to see if Jesse’s injuries can be healed.
I know I’s kept the Coltons at a distance, built a wall ‘against anyone trying to get close, but I ain’t sure why. I hate being alone. I hate that Pa’s gone. I hate that I’m out here in the middle of a wild Territory without a hand to hold.
So I start talking. Not out loud, but in my mind.
I pray to God and heaven and every power that be, Ussen included. I ask for Pa to rest easy, and Will do to the same, and Jesse to be all right. I ask for forgiveness for all those souls I killed, on purpose and by mistake. Tom outside Walnut Grove, those poor men at the poker game, even the bastards in Rose’s gang. It ain’t like the killing’s been making me feel better. I want the blood off my hands and my conscience washed clean. I wanna know I ain’t as dark and twisted as Rose himself and Christ, please Christ, God, Ussen, whoever is listening… Please let Jesse be fine.
(Vengeance Road, p249-50)
Goal/Lie Changes: Kate’s revelation here forces her to seriously question her belief system. She realizes that her stubbornness has only caused more loss, that it’s made her feel worse, not better, and that her independence has pushed away people who wanted to help her. As the third act kicks off, she realizes she might need to get off her high horse to gain justice. She decides to willingly partner with Jesse and not worry if he sees her vulnerabilities (a rejection of her lie that you have to be self-sufficient), hoping they can best Rose together. Her desire to kill Rose remains because she still believes her thematic lie that only justice will bring her peace.
The earned revelation should…
By the time you reach the climax of the third act, your hero will have their third and final revelation. In this moment, your hero will have to make a huge decision about how to act in the face of a difficult situation, potentially rejecting their lie for good.
John Truby (The Anatomy of Story) calls this the “moral decision.” Who is the character going to become? This goes beyond their plot-based goal (eg: defeat the villain, win the war, etc) and instead drills down into who they want to be both as an individual and to the people around them. In short, it is a moment of reckoning. Have they truly changed? Will they reject their lies fully, especially the thematic lie, and adopt a new worldview that is founded on a positive truth?
As we saw with Mad Max in last week’s lesson, big third act reveals can trigger big revelations. Both Furiosa and Max have their revelations in the final act and make moral decisions that ultimately allow them to complete their positive-growth character arcs.
This is also true in The Hunger Games. When it is announced that two winners are no longer allowed, Katniss makes the moral decision to eat the berries. Her moral revelation is that she would rather sacrifice her life and therefore her goals (win the Games, provide for her family) than kill Peeta and be a pawn in the game. In this moment, she also rejects her lie that counting on others is a weakness. She sees quite clearly that she and Peeta are stronger together.
Another wonderful example of a moral decision comes from Toy Story. Woody and Buzz finally make it onto the moving van, only for Buzz to fall off and be left behind. Woody’s moral decision is to rescue Buzz at all costs (even when it means Woody is thrown from the van himself). He chooses this path because he has finally rejected the lie that your only worth lies in being the favorite toy.
In these examples, the hero’s growth is completed during this final revelation—the “ah-ha!” moment where they make their moral decision. The final revelation, in many ways, is the moral decision, and it allows the hero to reject all their lies, including the thematic lie.
Note that if your hero has a negative growth arc, they still make a moral decision and experience a moral revelation. If the hero experiences a fall from grace, as in The Godfather, their moral decision is not to reject their lie but to embrace it fully. They are, in a sense, corrupted. Another negative growth arc is the tragic ending (eg: The Great Gatsby). In this type of story, the hero eventually rejects the lie, but the truth they accept is often a pessimistic, tragic truth. Sometimes it is even still a lie—a warped, twisted, worse version of the lie they believed when the story began.
Either way, the hero’s growth is completed via the moral revelation.
The moral revelation commonly falls just before or during the final battle and it should trigger the moral decision and allow the hero to complete their character arc. To plot this revelation, look carefully at the climax. The three step approached in Lesson 1.3 (Completing an Arc via Revelation) is applied here.
Again, we’ll use my novel Vengeance Road as an example:
Climax: Working together, Kate and Jesse locate the mine and confront Rose but…
Moral Revelation: “The pursuit of justice at all costs can corrupt you.” Kate’s moral revelation hits right in the middle of the climax, mid-action/battle scene, when she steps over a bleeding Rose and he begs her to put him out of his misery.
He’s far beyond saving, and for a moment I consider walking away. ‘Cus it would make him suffer more. ‘Cus he deserves to feel every ounce of this pain. I want it to last a million years. I want him to burn for eternity. I should carve a damn rose in his forehead first so he knows just how rotten he is.
But then I’d be just like him.
I’ll be just like Maria.
I’ll be more bad than good, more revenge than forgiveness. And I wanna be like Pa, a person who believes most people mean well deep down and will help a soul in need. I want to start living again without this boiling, vile blackness inside me, this scar that feels like it’s never any closer to healing. I wanna move on.
(Vengeance Road, p296)
Moral Decision: Kate shoots Rose, ending his suffering.
So I do the merciful thing, even though he don’t deserve it.
I cock my Colt and press the muzzle to Rose’s forehead.
“God help you,” I says, and I pull the trigger.
(Vengeance Road, p296)
Kate wants Rose to suffer, to pay for all he has done, to bleed out slowly and painfully, but she makes the moral decision to end his life swiftly because she doesn’t want to be like him (or her mother); “more bad than good,” she says. This decision is a direct result of the moral revelation she has a moment earlier. Both the revelation and the decision play out in a heartbeat—just 168 words.
Goal/Lie Changed? Kate rejects her thematic lie that justice alone will bring peace, and instead decides to be done with Rose and return to living her life. Her journey has hardened her, but it has also taught her that life is richer and better when she has someone to challenge her (like Jesse) and that she has a future ahead of her (with or without him), regardless of the fact that her father has passed. When she rejects all her lies and adopts this new world view, the resolution can kick off: Kate will return to Prescott to rebuild her home.
A New Normal: Kate parts ways with Jesse and travels back to Prescott, where she rebuilds her home, settles into a routine, and makes peace with her father’s passing. She lives alone but isn’t alone; she has neighbors and friends in town, and she’s no longer too proud to ask for help when she needs it. The final image shows Jesse riding onto her claim and the two of them reuniting.
The the moral revelation should…
It’s time to plot your revelations across the three act structure. If you get stuck, refer back to my Vengeance Road examples in lessons 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3. Before you begin, make sure you have your Unit One worksheet handy so that you can easily reference your notes on your hero’s goals and belief system.