When you want to conceal the setting

Last time we compared minimalist fiction with the failure to provide adequate setting details. But sometimes, a writer may want to hold back setting details to provide a plot twist later. Like minimalism, this is a difficult technique to do well. It’s also been done before—a lot—so you have to ensure you’re doing it in a way that’s original.

The fancy name for this technique is “concealed environment.” Because it’s so often abused, it’s also earned a couple of less flattering epithets. The Turkey City Lexicon calls it “Jar of Tang,” and George Scithers, a former editor of Asimov’s magazine, dubbed it “Tomato Surprise.”

The TV Tropes entry on Tomato Surprise is especially enlightening about just how often this technique gets mishandled. It also highlights the difference between the two epithets: in a Jar of Tang story, information about the setting is concealed; in a Tomato Surprise story, information about the protagonist is concealed.

The original Twilight Zone series often pulled these stunts. For example, in the episode “Stopover in a Quiet Town,” the characters explore a deserted town only to discover they are living in a child’s toy train village (Jar of Tang). In “Eye of the Beholder,” a “deformed” woman undergoes plastic surgery, but at the end she’s revealed to be what we would call beautiful, and her fellow citizens are bizarrely shaped aliens (Tomato Surprise).

Because these kinds of stories have been done so often, you need to be very adept to pull it off in a new and interesting way. I recommend against hiding the setting from the readers if your only purpose is to play some gimmicky trick on them. In short fiction you may get away with it, but in a novel it is not playing fair.

The only way to realistically conceal the environment of a novel is to write in deep character POV and keep the environment concealed from the viewpoint character. The classic example of this is in the original Planet of the Apes movie, when Charlton Heston doesn’t learn until the end of the film that he’s actually on Earth.

planet of the apes
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Two important things to note about Planet of the Apes. First, the details of the environment are given; only the big picture is concealed because right until the end, it’s beyond the scope of the character’s experience. Second, and this is more important, the story would still be a great story even if the reveal had been deleted. The reveal adds a twist to the story, but the story would still work without it. Too many Jar of Tang and Tomato Surprise stories hinge entirely on the reveal, and without it they don’t make sense.

Also worth noting is that the ending of the movie differs from the ending of Pierre Boulle’s original novel, and that one of the screenwriters was Rod Serling.

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