Never Hold Your Best Stuff

In a conversation with one of his many protégés (Philip Weiss) the late Peter Kaplan boiled down what it takes to create unforgettable characters. He called it “The Reveal.”

Figure out the reveal and you’ve got the turning point of a story. Once you have that…the thing practically writes itself.

The reveal is when a character makes a choice that explains his every other action. Kaplan was talking about the Eliot Spitzers, Lance Armstrongs, and Duck Commanders of the real world. After all, he edited the media industry’s must-read newspaper of 1994 to 2009, The New York Observer.

But the same holds true in fiction.

The reveal is the moment of truth, the absolute zero of a person’s being. Character as destiny. Here are some examples from fiction and real life.

  • In the screenplay Raging Bull by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, Jake LaMotta (played by Robert DeNiro) waves on Sugar Ray Robinson (played by Johnny Barnes) to hit him with everything he has.

Hey, Ray, I never went down, man! You never got me down, Ray! You hear me, you never got me down.

A man intent on proving himself by absorbing society’s worst blows endures a far worse pummeling inside his own mind. While he longs for the vacuity of eternal abyss, he’ll refuse to jump alone.

  • In 1947, Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). An unrepentant member of the Communist Party USA, Trumbo declines to name names of fellow Hollywood Reds.

He spends eleven months in a Federal Penitentiary for Contempt of Congress. Upon his release, he’s blacklisted. He writes scores of screenplays anyway. It’s all he knows how to do. His friends come together and put their names on his work so it’ll sell. (Woody Allen made a very good movie about it called The Front).

Among them are Exodus, Spartacus and Roman Holiday.

While others who did name names have a comeuppance and are attacked in the 1970s for their treachery, Trumbo refuses to join the intellectual tar and feathering:

“There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides; and almost every individual involved, no matter where he stood, combined some or all of these antithetical qualities in his own person, in his own acts.

Only a man who accepts humanity’s dark (witch hunting) and light (loyalty and love from his brothers) with equal grace attains wisdom.

  • In Judith Guest’s novel Ordinary People, Beth Jarrett (played by Mary Tyler Moore in the movie), is the mother of two boys. One she approves and one she secretly disdains. The good son dies in a boating accident. The pain in the ass survives.

The survivor tries to kill himself but can’t even do that right.

Her reveal is late in the story when she refuses to join the son and her husband in a family photo. It forces the husband to accept her for who she is…strong, uncompromising and impassive.

Her reveal challenges the husband to show his true self too. Her strength forces him to finally stand up for himself and make the best bad choice for his family.

Peter Kaplan always looked for and then shared reveals…

“Do you see Al Gore has gotten fat? Peter said. That’s about how angry he is.

What may be forgotten about Kaplan was that he was a brilliant writer.

Kaplan’s own reveal was his choice not to pour himself into his own prose, but to do whatever was necessary to goose talented sad sacks into creating their own important art. He worked to become a Wizard of Oz like editor who defined the funny/sad, hypercritical, and yet eternally hopeful voice of an entire generation of writers. The dominant voices today. Deep down Kaplan must have known he only had 59 years to get his work done. So he trained an army of others to continue it after he was gone. Smart.

Kaplan had his own mentor, an influential writer/editor who created New York Magazine, a media legend named Clay Felker. It’s obvious that Kaplan set his editorial course by Felker’s adages. Here they are:

1. Never hold your best stuff.

2. Put something shocking at the top of the page.

3. Women are the best reporters.

4. Point of view is everything.

5. Personal is better.

6. Never hold your best stuff.

It ain’t a bad idea for you to do the same…

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  1. Mary on December 27, 2013 at 8:40 am

    Thanks for this Shawn! Ordinary People is a favorite novel of mine. I read it every few years, most recently this past summer. There are many well-crafted moments that expose Beth for the dispassionate, uncompromising woman she is in addition to the one cited, e.g., she is angry that the son’s suicide attempt made a mess in the house, she will not return her son’s embrace, she will not look in on him when she comes home at night, and, of course, she refuses to be in the family photo with him. For me, the real moment that forces Calvin, her husband, to see her for who she really is comes on the golf trip when Calvin makes a passing remark about a future vacation that he assumes will include their son and she reacts so violently to it. I think the reveal here is more about Calvin “waking up” to who his wife really is (something the reader already knows). As I see it we have two jobs in fictional characterization: showing the readers who our characters are, and creating moments for our characters to reveal themselves to each other.

    • Pheralyn on January 1, 2014 at 10:36 am

      Reading this post made me think back to how I cut my own writing chops working as a reporter in news rooms, how I too was taught give every last drop I had in me for each line in each story I was working on. This is sage advice, indeed, for writers and artists of all genres and persuasions. Thanks for this reminder Sean. I find it ever so helpful as I plunge into the world of creative writing, with attempts at poetry, the essay, the novel and the screenplay.

  2. Kent Faver on December 27, 2013 at 8:55 am

    Shawn – you’ve again drawn out a great point on something I’ve been thinking about. Yesterday a friend commented that her in-laws were driving her bonkers over the holidays.

    Who doesn’t say that? But, the backstory is her husband committed suicide this past year. I told her sometimes tragedy reveals the worst in people (the in-laws). I immediately thought of Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. That’s the identifying character I always go to in this type of life example. Remember when she thought she might still fix it all with the broken plate scene? Fantastic writing.

  3. David Kaufmann on December 27, 2013 at 10:08 am

    Insightful and thought-provoking, as always. Did he write any guides to discovering a Reveal? (Like the Al Gore observation) Or tools for digging into character?

    Two more writers on my must read list: Trumbo and Kaplan. Thanks

  4. Pamela Hodges on December 27, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Hello Mr. Coyne,

    Would you please explain what Clay Felker meant by, “Never hold you best stuff”?

    I know it may seem obvious, but would you please explain?


    • Shawn Coyne on December 27, 2013 at 12:33 pm

      Hi Pamela,

      Newspaper and magazine editors assign numerous stories to in-house and freelance journalists. When the material comes in, the nervous editor often “holds” some of the best stuff for future issues so that he doesn’t get stuck with a bad week/day or month with nothing great in the hopper.

      Felker wisely advised against holding great stuff for future editions. Rather to blow it all on one issue even if you have nothing ready for the next.

      The pressure is good for you as an editor. And necessity is a wonderful incubator. The sooner you try and game your job as an editor, the sooner you’ll be out of one.

      And you’re right. The above was not obvious to anyone not in the business. My mistake.

      • Pamela Hodges on December 28, 2013 at 6:44 am

        Thank you Shawn for explaining what Clay Felker meant. Now I understand.
        I will print this list out and put it by my computer so I can refer to it while I am writing.


      • Erik Dolson on December 28, 2013 at 7:08 am

        Use it or lose it. It’s the best stuff now, but it might not be the best when the context changes later in the week or the month, or when something else happens that is even better stuff. And if there’s a day when there’s no great stuff, you go with the best stuff you’ve got, then, and that’s news, too.

  5. Kathy Ostman-Magnusen on December 28, 2013 at 8:00 am

    As I read this I thought of all my promises in the past, each new year or even each new day. The promise or commitment has been to paint or sculpt as well as I know I can, deep down that is. Stop with the hits and misses and lazy ass plotting of what comes next and to “never hold back my best stuff”. To understand what it is in my heart that I want to say and to “reveal” it well enough so that others see it too.

    On Christmas day I watched “The Legend of Bagger Vance” three times in a row and then again another time the next day. I am not kidding. Each time during the scenes where Rannulph Junuh practiced in the rain, or connected with the spirit of the game in his own heart; seeking to find his “authentic swing” and himself, tears ran down my face. I kept saying to myself out loud, “Do the work.” Art, painting, sculpting are “my” golf, my calling and what I was born to do.

    It is so important to understand and reveal my own character to myself and to work on my novel to me. I loved this blog. My list for the new year?

    “1. Never hold your best stuff.

    2. Put something shocking at the top of the page.

    3. Women are the best reporters.

    4. Point of view is everything.

    5. Personal is better.

    6. Never hold your best stuff.

    It ain’t a bad idea for you to do the same… ”

    Thank you for my list and helping me define it.

  6. Michele Nelson on December 28, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Thanks for yet another great column, Shawn. The Reveal is something I’m struggling with right now in my novel, especially with the protagonist. It’s not daunting but rather exciting to mull over and search for that “moment” that will tell the reader so much about him.

    Dalton Trumbo is a personal hero of mine, and I read one of his letters (from a volume long out-of-print) each day. For anyone who is interested, I highly recommend the documentary “Trumbo,” which aired on PBS a couple of years ago. You can rent/stream it on Netflix.

  7. Eric Sheetz on December 28, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    The reveal. No other form of self-help has led me to decide to act with authenticity and courage. I asked “what’s my reveal?” The answer came quickly, and with it, the confidence to act with my best came next.

    If you like details, I’m happy to elaborate. Thanks, Eric

    • Beth Barany on December 28, 2013 at 11:25 pm

      I’m curious, Eric. Please do share!

      As a novelist, I reach for the reveal by figuring out where the character will end up at the end of the story. During the writing process, I sometimes get there, and sometimes the reveal “reveals” itself as something new by the time I write the end of the story.

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