Technique: Parallel Stories, Slow Reveal

I review books from Netgalley, and I recently got two significant short story collections: Writers of the Future Volume 30 and Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eight. So far, I've only read the first one, but it's taught me something.

Of course, that's exactly why I read it; I wanted to see what is considered really good spec-fic short story writing these days, rather than just reading classic short stories. I've been writing a few short stories lately, mostly for the collection I'm doing with HDWP Press, and based on the feedback I've hadĀ I seem to be getting better. I'm yet to sell a story to a major magazine, but I've had a very encouraging personalised rejection from Strange HorizonsĀ and some good comments from critique groups.

Part of the point of writing short stories is to improve my craft by working at the short length, and then take those lessons into my novels. Here's the lesson I learned from several of the stories in Writers of the Future, which I call "parallel stories, slow reveal".

The clearest and best use of the technique is in Shauna O'Meara's story "Beneath the Surface of Two Kills". At the opening of this story, we learn that the narrator, a professional hunter, is hunting a rare animal for the last meal of a convicted felon on death row. As the story progresses, we discover more about the "two kills": the one which the hunter is working towards, and the one which we know occurred in the past to place the killer in prison awaiting execution. The hunter thinks about the news coverage he has read of the killer's stalking of his victim as he, in turn, stalks the rare beast.

This works for a few reasons. Firstly, the parallel stories obviously reflect on each other (and the conclusion differentiates the two characters). Secondly, as also happens with several other stories in the same collection, we start out knowing the ending of a story that occurred earlier, and gradually learn how that outcome occurred.

Now, given how some people react to "spoilers", you'd think that would be a problem, but done well it actually keeps the reader's interest. We know the outcome, but we don't know how it came to be, and we want to.

Here are some ways I can think of to use the slow reveal:

  • Hint at something surprising about the character early on that doesn't match up with what you've revealed about them so far.
  • Let the reader see a terrible (or wonderful) outcome looming, of which the characters remain ignorant until it happens.
  • As the story opens, let the reader know that the character feels a strong emotion (fear, anger, sadness) about something that happened, but don't tell them why (or what) until later.
  • Show a character learning something that another character has already learned, and tell their stories in parallel.
  • This is a classic: Start the character out in a fix. Gradually show how they got into it as they struggle to get out of it.

Like any technique, this can be done badly and fail. Used well, though, it holds the reader's attention and keeps them reading. Watch out for it in my future stories.

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Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his Auckland Allies contemporary urban fantasy series; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable, and there are a lot more wizards. He also writes the Gryphon Clerks series (steampunk/magepunk), the Hand of the Trickster series (sword-and-sorcery heist capers), and short stories which have appeared in venues such as Compelling Science Fiction and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.

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