Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.30: Planting Supernatural Seeds

How do you slowly reveal the supernatural in an obviously supernatural story? How can you prepare your audience for a reveal without disclosing it too quickly? If someone is familiar with your writing, they know the genre and what to expect from it. We talk about how we work within these confines while also making space for surprises, magic, and the supernatural.


Do a reread or rewatch of something with a big reveal (like the reveal in “Dark One: Forgotten.”) Think about how your understanding of the story has changed since you have that information earlier.

Also prepare for our upcoming Deep Dive, by reading through Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary. And feel free to re-listen to our interview with Howard earlier this year, here.

Thing of the Week:

Nope, directed by Jordan Peele

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Supernatural seeds? Preparing your audience for the reveal, the change of genre, but avoiding frustrating the audience. Why are slow reveals valuable? Invest in character before conflict or danger. Don’t jump into in media res, immediate action, give us the normal world and let us get to know the characters as people before the action starts. Move from the safe to the dangerous, or the familiar to the unfamiliar, and use the movement as a source of tension. Immediate drop in or slow creep in? Believers and skeptics, audience surrogates. Hang a lantern on it, flag it, plant those supernatural seeds and build incrementally. A huge surprise makes some readers mad. Positioning, the wrapping around the story, title, cover, marketing, copy, comp titles. Your beginning is an establishing shot that promises here is what I am going to give you. One structure, with a shift in set dressing, or a real structural shift? Think about what the emotional outcome of the work is. 

[Season 18, Episode 30]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Planting Supernatural Seeds.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] We… What do we mean, by planting supernatural seeds? In Dark One: Forgotten, it is clearly a supernatural story. But we pretend that it’s not for about three episodes until it becomes something inarguable. This is something that I do in a lot of my fiction. You’ll see it in a lot of other things. It’s difficult, because on the one hand, you need to make sure that you are preparing your audience for that reveal, that, “Oh, no, this isn’t the genre you thought it was.” But it also has an added difficulty sometimes. When you see Brandon Sanderson’s name on the cover, you know there’s magic, and you need to do that slow reveal very carefully, so that the audience doesn’t feel frustrated with the characters, “How can you be so stupid, obviously there’s magic. Just get over it and get on with the story.

[Howard] Can’t you tell that you’re in a Sanderson story?


[Dan] So, there’s lots of different ways that you can do these kind of slow reveal. But let’s start with the question I love to ask, which is, why is this valuable? What do we get by delaying that reveal or delaying making it obvious, instead of just being right up front about it?

[DongWon] I think one obvious thing is what drives so much of drama or tension or just pulling the reader in is our relationship to character. Right? We need to invest in characters as people before we really care about them when they’re in conflict or in danger. Right? So, especially in horror, you see this, of people starting in the quote unquote normal world in their normal life context… In the car going to the cabin in the woods. Right? Or, before the apocalypse happens. Or before the home invasion. So we get to know them as people, see them in their ordinary lives, let us identify with them and see ourselves in them before the very stressful things start to happen. It can be a challenge, because I think a lot of people have this impulse of, “Oh, we need to start the story in media res. We need to start the story with immediate action, immediate something.” When, in fact, a lot of times, what we need to actually be doing is spending the time to get to know them as people before the stuff starts happening.

[Erin] I think one of the reasons for this is that movement actually creates a lot of tension and creates a lot of fear. So, one of the things that I love in horror, especially, is the movement from the safe to the dangerous, to the unsafe, and the movement from the familiar to the unfamiliar. You can always do these along different axes, so you can say, this was a safe, familiar place. Now it is a dangerous, familiar place. Like, I’m trapped in my own house and I know it well, but I don’t know what’s in here with me. But, in order to do that, it’s good to have what’s safe and familiar and known in there so that you establish it. Then, when you move to something that is more dangerous and more unfamiliar, you’re moving from something and you can feel that movement as a source of tension.

[Howard] It’s in the last place you check. The answer that you’re looking for is in the last place that you check. If the answer is, oh, this is magic, and it’s the third thing you check, we’ve missed a whole lot of opportunities for tension. You just… By playing coy, by planting the seeds and taking every step you can take before you arrive at that final place, you make that final place more important, more wondrous, more humorous, more horrifying, because by the time you get there, you really have ruled everything else out and it’s stickier for lack of a better term.

[Dan] Well, that’s what a lot of this comes down to. Right? It’s, what are you trying to do with your story? If that tension, and that sense of unease and discovery are kind of a big part of what you’re driving for, then it helps to delay that. To make the audience work for it, to make the characters earn that discovery. Whereas, if what you’re really trying to do is just some kind of supernatural action story, Dresden File style, right off the bat, first paragraph, he’s a wizard. Okay, let’s get on with it.

[Mary Robinette] I think that in cases like with the Dark One: Forgotten, a lot of what you’re doing is encapsulated in that quote that we keep hearing, the Holmes quote, that once you’ve discarded the impossible, anything that remains, no matter how improbable… What you’re doing in this is that she’s slowly recalibrating her understanding of what is impossible and taking the reader along with it. One of the advantages to that as opposed to the immediate drop in… The immediate drop in, you’ve got the buy-in, it’s like, okay, I understand. Here we are, wizards, great. But you never think that that story can happen in the real world. Whereas when you do that slow creep in, it causes you to start reevaluating the things that are happening around you, to… In ways that are not always conscious, but that bring the story out into the real world, which is often very unsettling and delightful.

[DongWon] Well, this is why it’s often helpful to… For… If you have a Mulder, then you have a Scully. Right? If you have someone who’s a believer, then you have someone who’s a skeptic. Both can be audience surrogates in different ways, depending on where you fall. Right? Because you don’t exactly know where your audience is in terms of their readiness for this to be a supernatural story. So giving a voice to one character, who can be, like, obviously, it’s ghosts. Right? And to another character, who’s, like, obviously, it’s gases that are causing people to hallucinate. Right? There is such a joyful tension in that as you’re representing sort of the two halves of the reader’s brain as they’re trying to figure out what kind of story are we in, where is this going, what do I want it to be? That’s a way to be playful with it and build the tension until you get to the actual reveal of what’s going on.

[Erin] Yeah. I think audience surrogate… I love that term, because I think one of the things I really enjoy about story in general is when the narrative and the character are going on the same journey. So the character’s on a journey of discovery, and then you, as the audience, like, are also on, like, that’s similar journey of discovery. So what I think is really cool in Dark One: Forgotten is just at the moment when you might be thinking, oh, wait, like, but this could be something else, they explore that. If you do that at the right time, it feels like you and the audience are working together and telling the story in the same way. You’re just like the character, you could be the other person doing a podcast about this. That’s a really fun way to feel as an audience member.

[Dan] That was… This is where I relied very heavily on the writing group that I was in at the time. The very first draft of Forgotten, they thought Christina and Sophie were absolute idiots, because it was… I had made it too obvious that it was magic, and the fact that they didn’t just completely rewrite their own concept of the universe in episode one made them look foolish. Because I had placed them in a clearly supernatural universe. Whereas figuring out, well, what is something that the readers are going to accept as an alternative explanation for what is going on, what are the readers going to think is too far. I had, initially, for example, hit the cult idea much harder, thinking, oh, this is going to be a plausible thing. But I had gone too far with it, to the point that it was clearly a red herring. That just made the characters look foolish for falling for it. So it was a very careful balance that basically just required a lot of writing group, reader feedback, and a lot of revision.

[DongWon] Well, I love that you solved it by hanging a lantern on it. Right? I mean, not to get too deep into spoilers, but a big chunk of that first part is them talking to various experts, trying to figure out what is the scientific explanation for what’s going on. You go through this sort of link the process of elimination, but it’s a great opportunity for character and worldbuilding too. And the second time that happens, there’s just this incredibly delicious reveal that I’m not going to get into. But, I think, you very deliberately flagging it and bringing that to the fore, let’s you plant those supernatural seeds and build to it incrementally as you walk the characters through it. I think a lot of the… There’s a dramatic irony to those scenes, as, I think, for me at least, I was like, “Oh, come on. It’s obviously supernatural.” But watching them go through it made it more believable and grounded and made the ultimate reveal that much more exciting.

[Dan] Well, let’s compare that to I Am Not a Serial Killer, where I did the same thing, but I did it… I think I did it wrong. Go read all the one star reviews of I Am Not a Serial Killer, and this is the exact issue they have with it. They thought it was one genre, and then it turned out to be a different genre, and it made them all mad. What I did in that first one is I just made it a huge surprise. The supernatural comes out of nowhere. It… Chapter 7 arrives, and it’s just like, okay. There was no lead up, there was no build up, I was not helping acclimate you to the concept first. So, doing it here, I did take more of that time, like, let them think… That’s one of the very first theories that Christina proposes, is this might be magic, and then it gets shot down, and they’re like, “Of course it’s not that.” Then they go through this process of trying to find other explanations, and eventually realize that there aren’t any.

[Mary Robinette] Also, the pieces of worldbuilding details that you give us our things that we recognize as tropes from genre fiction. Shot in the back with an arrow. Eye removed. Unexplained bathtub full of bones. Like, all of these things are recognizable elements that could come out of, like, many different books and worlds. So the reader recognizes those clues. In the John Cleaver, like, if you had planted a little bit of unexplained sludge earlier, it would have been enough to like breadcrumb us. But also completely plausible why John would dismiss that.

[Howard] Well, in fairness, today, if someone picks up I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells, they know that Dan Wells writes supernagical… Supernagical? 


[Howard] Writes things that are not firmly grounded in reality because… Yeah. So the clue has already been planted.

[Mary Robinette] For some readers. You can’t rely…

[Howard] Not all. Exactly. Yeah.

[Dan] All right. We are going to take a moment here to pause, and when we come back, we’ll have some more questions.

[DongWon] So, for the thing of the week this week, as we’re talking about slow reveals and shifting genre tropes, I want to talk about the most recent movie from one of my very favorite filmmakers, Nope by Jordan Peele. This is a movie that does hang a lantern on the fact that it is supernatural from the start, but the genre of it shifts in the third act in a way that I found to be truly delightful. I don’t want to get into spoilers, but what you think starts as one thing, you slowly start to realize might be something else going on. That is such a fun journey to go on. Jordan Peele is such a master of surprise in the best ways that feels really organic and feels really rooted in the characters and the overall metaphorical journey that everybody’s going on. Nope was really one of my very favorite movies from the last couple of years. I think it’s absolutely brilliant, and I really recommend everybody go and watch it.

[Dan] All right. So, like I said, this is something that I do a lot of. My book The Hollow City is about a guy with schizophrenia who realizes some of the monsters he sees are real. The slow burn reveal of that story is that you don’t have any proof that he’s actually right rather than just crazy until the third act. My science fiction novel, Extreme Makeover, takes a very different tack on this, where it’s split into four sections. Section one is pure corporate satire. There are no science fictional elements yet. They’re there, and they’re in the background. In hindsight, you can say, oh, that’s what’s going on, but the genre does take that change once you get into part two.

[Mary Robinette] But you also signposted that’s where we’re heading by the chapter headings which is X amount of time until the end of the world.

[DongWon] Well, that’s one thing I want to talk about, actually. We’ve kind of alluded to it a little bit. It’s very important to signal it in the text, but don’t forget that there’s also things that are the wrapping around the story you’re consuming that will signal to your reader what they’re in for. Right? This is where what we call in publishing positioning becomes very important. So, what’s the title of your book? What’s the cover look like? How is it marketed? What is the copy on it? What comp titles are you using? All of these are ways that we, in the industry, used to signal the readers, to set expectations, appropriately. I think a lot of when we do see negative reviews, it’s because they were expecting one thing and got something else. So, for me, when a cover misfires, it’s not that the art is ugly or is bad. Sometimes that’s true, but 90% of the time, a failure in cover or title for me is when I look at it and I get the wrong idea or I get no idea of what kind of book I’m going to read. This doesn’t mean that the character on the front has to be like pixel perfect accurate to the character in the book. You want to cover some basic things. But don’t get too hung up on representation of plot. Think more representation of genre and theme and mode more than the real specifics.

[Dan] You can do that… That’s absolutely true. You can do that with the way the book is presented. That will affect, I think, the way that you write the early stuff. In some ways, what you’re doing is you’re making a promise to the reader. Right? This is going to be this kind of book. Your chapter 1, your prologue, however it begins is a sort of establishing shot to say here’s what I’m going to give you. Stick with me and it’s going to be great. The way the book is packaged and presented and sold, you’re making sure it gets into the hands of the people who are going to like it. Specifically, you want the people who are going to love the way it ends. Right? If… Extreme Makeover, for example, is a huge science fiction story about an Apocalypse that destroys the world, if it is purely readers of corporate satire that started, they’re going to be disappointed by the time they get to the end. So you need to get it into the right hands first, and then the problem becomes, well, how can you keep their attention in the first part when it isn’t yet the apocalyptic satire destruction of the world? The way that I think you do that is exactly what you’re talking about. With less specifics and more tone and mode. If I establish this as a mystery story, in which a weird thing is happening, and we’re going to figure out what it is, then you’re with me the whole way. You are the kind of person who will enjoy the answer, but you are also the kind of person who will enjoy that journey of discovery. So don’t think of it as the first part is true crime and the last part is supernatural. The entire thing needs to be of a whole piece, fitting into this kind of mystery discovery storyline that is going to encompass both promises that are made.

[DongWon] The entire thing is suspense. Right? It’s suspense is core to what’s going on. It’s about them trying to understand and interrogate the mystery throughout. The parameters of what that mystery could be or what is creating that tension, evolves over the course of the story, but we expect that as readers. So, provided you’re promising something clear up front which is this is going to be an investigation into something weird, and you’re delivering that throughout, I think you’ll end up with an audience that’s pretty happy with it by the end.

[Mary Robinette] So, it occurs to me as you’re talking about this, that one of the reasons it works so well in Dark One: Forgotten is… There’s a difference between genres that are aesthetically driven and genres that are super… Structurally driven. So you have… You’re very clear that the structure of that genre, the mystery thriller structure, suspense thriller structure, is solid all the way through, but your set dressing shifts. Part way through. That’s the genre shift that you’re actually doing. That’s a little bit easier to signal in some ways. That that’s going to happen. You set up some of that aesthetic in the beginning again with the arrow and the eye being taken. So I think when you’re thinking about these things, think about the kind of genre shift you’re going to do. If you’re going from romance into horror/thriller, you need to… That is a tonal and structural shift. You have to deliver completely different promises. That’s going to be a much harder lift to pull off.

[Howard] You need to warn the romance readers.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] From word one.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] Or you’re going to get roasted.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. This is… Tangentially, one of the problems I had with Shades of Milk and Honey was that I wrote it for science fiction and fantasy readers, and it would sometimes just gets shelved in romance. I got multiple letters from people that went in variations of… My favorite was, “I’m British and I’ve never heard of glamour. I think you made it up.”


[Mary Robinette] I was like, “Yeah. Good catch there.”

[DongWon] Well spotted.

[Mary Robinette] Well spotted. Indeed.

[Howard] You’ve outed me.

[Mary Robinette] Absolutely.

[Dan] Oh, wait, we can make stuff up?

[DongWon] One, maybe useful counterexample is the Mike Flanagan adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. I personally love this show and I think a lot of people do, but there was a segment of the audience that got very frustrated because I think it does the opposite of what you’re talking about, Mary Robinette, but the set dressing remains the same throughout the whole show. Which is, there’s a house. It is haunted. But it starts in a very horror tone. The first few episodes are very frightening. Then, by the end, that horror kind of goes away and it becomes more what I would think of as contemporary fantasy. As the themes of the story it of all. I think that evolution’s very beautiful, but I understand that people were set up to get a horror ending and then instead it ends up in an almost warm and cozy way. Still a sad and tragic one, but the tone shifts significantly in those last couple of episodes. So I think that created a lot of disappointment and a lot of frustration for people who thought they were getting this horror thing. At this point, we all understand what Mike Flanagan does and I think that expectations have shifted a little bit when he has a new project coming out, and obviously, he’s very successful, but… I think that audience disappointment is a thing I think about a lot when looking at how do we execute the ending of this and is that in line with how we started.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think what Dan said earlier about needing to make sure that the reader is satisfied with the outcome…


[Mary Robinette] I often talk about writing as a drug made out of words. You’re hacking your brain, people pick up a book, consume any piece of media, because they want to change something about the way they are thinking or feeling. You can pick up medication and it’s got a really bitter taste at the end… At the beginning. But it fixes a problem. Great. You’re going to go with that. But if you have to deal with this bitter taste and you don’t get the problem resolved, you’re going to be really unhappy about that.

[DongWon] Right.

[Mary Robinette] So I think that thinking about the outcome, thinking about how you want the reader to walk away from the project, that is… That’s a driving thing for me for a lot of my work. Not the what is my plot outcome, but what is my emotional outcome. Speaking of ending things, should we talk about some homework?

[Dan] Yes. So. Homework this week is we want you to go back and re-experience something that does this. Something you have already read or watched. For example, Dark One: Forgotten. But it could be any of these others we talked about or even something that you’re familiar with. Something that changes genre part way through. Now that you know that, now that you’ve already seen it, go back and read or watch or experience it again and see how that was a set up. How does your understanding of where it’s going change the way that you see the beginning? What are the tricks that they are doing to help prepare the audience for that shift that’s going to happen part way through?

[Mary Robinette] In our next episode of Writing Excuses, we talk about how to stop discounting our own lives and experiences as being normal, and when to turn the knob to 11. Until then, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.