‘The “reveal” remains a very effective technique, and one with which I am very familiar from my time as a standup comedian. It may sound surprising, but a joke and a crime novel work in very much the same way. The comedian/writer leads their audience along the garden path. The audience know what’s coming, or at least they think they do until they get hit from a direction they were not expecting.
The best example I can think of from the world of crime fiction is in Thomas Harris’s novel, The Silence of the Lambs. The Swat team have the killer cornered and are approaching his house. At the same time, Clarice Starling has been dispatched to a small town many miles away to tie up a few loose ends. A member of the Swat teams ring the killer’s doorbell. We “cut” to the killer’s ghastly cellar where he hears the doorbell ring. This is the moment when the dummy is sold and the reader buys it completely. The reader stays with the killer as he slowly climbs the stairs. We know he has a gun. We know what he is capable of. He opens the door, and . . . it’s Clarice Starling! The Swat team are at the wrong house, she is at the right house and she doesn’t know it. It’s the perfect reveal and it happens at the precise moment that the reader turns the page. The best crime fiction is full of heart-stopping moments such as this.
The reason that Harris’s reveal works so wonderfully, however, is not just because of the sublime timing. It works because of the character of Clarice Starling; a young woman the reader has come to know well and to empathise with. Ultimately, this is where I believe that the key to genuine suspense is to be found.’