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When Star Wars burst onto the scene in 1977, audiences were almost immediately exposed to the imposing figure of Darth Vader. The film has its famous title crawl, a scene of a small space vessel being chased by a massive capital ship, a scene of battle as the stormtroopers kill the royal guards…and then boom! The main villain of the entire trilogy walks right onto the scene, just four minutes into the series!
Meanwhile the story’s protagonist, Luke Skywalker, doesn’t show up until much alter. We have multiple scenes around the aftermath of the starship battle, of two droids escaping to a desert planet and being captured by junk traders, and finally Luke appears when the droids are brought to the farm where he lives.
By introducing us first to the size of the Star Destroyer, the cold efficiency of the stormtroopers, and the immense strength of Darth Vader, we are immediately impressed by how small and insignificant Luke Skywalker is in this world. We are able to hold both him and Darth Vader in hand and compare them directly.
There are many other stories that also begin by showing their villain and his power right off the bat, but there are also many that keep their villain in the shadows until much later.
In The Hound of the Baskervilles, we open on a stranger coming to visit Holmes and Watson at 221b Baker Street, bringing news of a strange and mysterious case. The man relates how one Charles Baskerville died of a heart attack with an expression of intense horror upon his face. There were footprints nearby, those of a gigantic canine, which has reminded the locals of an old legend, which states that a massive and demonic hound will forever menace and kill the members of the Baskerville family.
Holmes is, of course, dismissive of that legend, but curious enough about the case to get to the bottom of it. So right at the start the audience has this idea put in their mind of a massive hound, but we do not actually see the thing right away like we did with Darth Vader.
In fact, all throughout the story we keep hearing about the legend of this fearsome beast, we even hear the cries of some dog out upon the moor, but never do we get a glimpse of the thing, and are left wondering whether the legends are true or not.
This approach is excellent for building up suspense, but sooner or later there has to be a moment of reckoning. A story that has strung the audience along like this must be able to provide a satisfying resolution to that anticipation. Fortunately, in the book’s climatic chapter, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle provides a most excellent answer to all that expectation.
The cloud was within fifty yards of where we lay, and we glared at it, all three, uncertain what horror was about to break from the heart of it....A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.
With long bounds the huge black creature was leaping down the track, following hard upon the footsteps of our friend.
The beast is real and it is terrifying! It leaps upon their client, Henry Baskerville, and is about to mangle him, when Holmes fires five rounds from his revolver, slaying the beast. The spectral demon is dead.
But as it turns out, the truth of the dog’s origins lay halfway between the old family legend and Sherlock’s initial skepticism. There was never an actual demon hound, but a local murderer leaned into the legend by starving a massive canine so that it would kill any passerby, and painted it with phosphorous to create an even more fearsome appearance in the dark of night.
So on the one hand the great enemy can be introduced right at the story’s outset, and used to illustrate just how much of an uphill battle the hero will face to win the day. On the other hand the enemy can be kept as a phantom, teasing us from the shadows until they finally emerge in the climatic finale.
In both approaches the quality of the revelation still matters. We doubt Luke’s chances only because we have been impressed by the strength of Darth Vader’s introduction, and we despair for Henry Baskerville only because we have been impressed by the emergence of the fearful hound. Of course it is the latter approach, that of revealing the great evil towards the end of the story, that has the greater weight to bear. If a villain is insufficiently imposing at the outset of a story we will feel disappointed, but if we are let down at the very end we will also feel cheated.
When I began work on The Salt Worms I had to decide whether the titular creatures would make repeated appearances throughout, being a constant menace to my protagonist, or whether they would only be spoken of secondhand, saving for a dramatic reveal until the very end.
Ultimately I decided to go with the latter, even though it put a greater burden on me to reveal it in a satisfying and epic way. With my last chapters we finally saw that reveal, and I spent some time trying to make it sudden, powerful, and different from what the audience would be expecting.
Whether I succeeded in my ambition is ultimately up to you readers to decide, but I am glad to have had the exercise. Of course we haven’t seen the last of the massive worm, though. It will appear again at the very end for the last time, and hopefully that will be a memorable resolution,