Monday 1 April 2019

How does Reveal-Conceal work? How do writers do it? Why is it important?

Who's there?
Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.
Long live the king!
You come most carefully upon your hour.
'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
For this relief much thanks: 'tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.
Have you had quiet guard?
Not a mouse stirring.
Well, good night.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.
I think I hear them. Stand, ho! Who's there?
Friends to this ground.
And liegemen to the Dane.
Give you good night.
O, farewell, honest soldier:
Who hath relieved you?
Bernardo has my place.
Give you good night.
Holla! Bernardo!
What, is Horatio there?
A piece of him.
Welcome, Horatio: welcome, good Marcellus.
What, has this thing appear'd again to-night?
I have seen nothing.
Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us:
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night;
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.
Tush, tush, 'twill not appear.
Sit down awhile;
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story
What we have two nights seen.
Well, sit we down,
And let us hear Bernardo speak of this.
Last night of all,
When yond same star that's westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one,--
Enter Ghost

So here are 28 little speeches that happen before we read in the stage directions: 'Enter Ghost'. If, we put ourselves in the shoes of the writer, William Shakespeare, and we have a story to tell, it's clear that he has made some choices here about how to do it. For example, he could have begun this play with 'Enter Ghost'. He could have begun with what is the next line after 'Enter Ghost' which is: 'Peace, break thee off: look where it comes again!' (spoken by Marcellus). Shakespeare could, perhaps, have got all four men to come on to the stage talking about this ghost that they've seen before and then to be suddenly confronted with it again. It's easy to think of different ways this scene could begin.

This leads me to ask, why do it this way? 

Line 1 is a classic example of how writers do 'reveal-conceal'. We pretend that we are revealing a new piece of information whilst at the same time, concealing or withholding another. A character asking a question that he or she doesn't the know the answer of, is one way to do it. If the reader doesn't know the answer - as with this example - then the question is both a question and a cunning way to get the audience to wonder along with the person asking the question. 'Who's there?' says Bernardo. Yes, who? we ask. 

As this is a play and not a story, we don't know exactly how Bernardo says this but we can figure out from how fearful they are later in the scene that a good way to perform this line is to be absolutely terrified. This will add to the 'conceal' element in the question. (Think of the alternatives, e.g.   Bernardo is drunk and he calls out, 'who's there?' as if he's hoping for a bit of company.) Making Bernardo fearful will build up our expectations and fears and - key word for 'reveal-conceal': dread. A lot of fiction works on the basis that we readers and audience fear or dread a bad or awful outcome. We may have this dread confirmed or relieved, depending on what kind of story it is. 

So, the reveal is a guard. The conceal is something along the lines of, who does this guard dread? Who is he afraid of?

It's a great start to a story.

Line 2 from Francisco confirms the dread. It is in a way an echo of what Bernardo has just said. They are equally full of dread. Line 3 is in effect the password that informs the other party that neither is a threat to another. In effect the withholding of what or who it is they dread is being postponed while we have a second of relief along with the two men that the object of their dread hasn't turned up. But what is the object of their dread? Still withheld.

Line 7 tells us that this is the changing of the guard - more reveal than conceal. So far so good. 

Line 8 stokes the dread: Francisco has 'much relief' - a grim Shakespearean pun. 'Relief' from what? Why? That's more conceal at work there. We are given the atmospherics of the fact that it's cold - that's reveal rather than conceal. 

Line 9 is another example of the questioning method of reveal-conceal. We are invited to wonder. Our questioning is informed by the fear that we saw and heard when Bernardo and Francisco first met. A bit more conceal being stoked here.

Line 10 reassures the guards. We are perhaps reassured too but now we are into another form of 'conceal' - the delay. We know in our bones that something is afoot but we are being told that nothing is happening. (Dramatic irony).

Line 21 brings in Horatio and Marcellus - more reveal than conceal. But the next line:

Line 22 we have the question method yet again. This is building up a sense that this group of people really don't know what's going on or perhaps more particularly why the thing that is happening keeps happening. 

Speech 24 is interesting from the reveal-conceal perspective : first we have the word 'fantasy' and then a bit later the word 'dreaded'. Fantasy raises the question of whether they are imagining things. 'Dreaded' chimes with the characters and our sense of foreboding. It stokes the dread - of course. It works as 'what the characters dread so the audience dreads'. 

Then we have the word 'apparition'.  This is a great reveal. We now know what it is that the characters dread but it is sufficiently vague and full of unknown potential to keep the conceal going. An apparition of what? Of who? And why is it here? Lots of conceal in and amongst the reveal.

Speeches 25 and 26 show us that Horatio is the reassuring voice, possibly the more rational voice amongst them. This serves the function of revealing Horatio to us, who will of course later be Hamlet's reassuring and loyal friend. But he also can act in this moment as an echo to our own rational thoughts; e.g. that we might not believe in apparitions. Hiding behind that, though, is the conceal of: 'Well if an apparition does appear, that will outweigh a rationalist's suspicions'. (It's a technique often used on TV shows about ghosts or hypnotism: win over the most rational person in the room!)

Speeches 25-28 are 'delay' methods of reveal-conceal. Notice that Bernardo in 28 has gone into Classical mode of speech, lines that tell us of settings, visuals, states of the weather and the like. We might well feel at this point: 'Get on with it!' but it's being withheld (concealed), right up to the moment that the Ghost appears and is revealed. 

Our sense of anticipation, tension, foreboding and dread should be pretty well stoked up for this moment. 

This opening is a good example of how writers do reveal-conceal. 

I'm interested in why it is that a process that I think is central to how writers write, how and why readers read (excitement, tension, foreboding, confirmation of one's fears or contradiction of them with reassurance) is hardly touched on in the usual school-based criticism. 

I've identified several aspects of reveal-conceal here: e.g. questioning, delay, minor reassurance en route to the object of our dread, stoking fears through use of words like 'dread', talking of an object of our dread in vague terms - like 'apparition' and so on. 

We could call this the beginning of a 'grammar' of reveal-conceal.