Never Hold Your Best Stuff
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…