Category Archives: twists

Starting at Zero

Have you ever gone to a movie and realized about halfway through that the jackass who made the trailer for it spoiled one of the major plot points?  One of my favorite examples is The Sixth Sense, where the creepy kid confides ‘I see dead people,’ in the trailer, a very important plot twist that doesn’t come until about halfway through the movie.

Well, the same sort of thing can happen in books.  I’ve had, on multiple occasions, found myself a chapter or two into a book when I suddenly realize that the author wanted to spring something on me that I knew going in.  Perhaps it’s the fact that the novel is set on a spaceship traveling to a new solar system.  The first few chapters take place on a farm, so when we get to the end of a chapter and the boy is peering through the glass dome and realizes that he’s out amongst the stars, it’s supposed to take our breath away.

It’s a little hard to be surprised by that revelation, though, when the cover of the book shows a spaceship that happens to have a giant dome on its back and what appears to be a continent within it.

Similarly, the scene where the kindly old professor reveals himself to be a bloodthirsty vampire is just a bit less of a shocker when the cover shows me an old man grinning to reveal two impressive fangs.

Not to mention everything that a back cover can give away.

Part of the problem is where the control over these things lies.  If a writer has final say on a book cover and jacket blurb, he’s got a good chance of getting out ahead of these problems.  But if the publisher isn’t interested in feedback and just wants to rush the manuscript through their machine and get it out in the world, things can be a bit more complicated.

But even if the writer does have control over these things, it can be tricky figuring out how to market certain stories without giving things away.  Take that story about the farmer who discovers he isn’t on a world, but on a spaceship.  If that revelation is in chapter two, then presumably most of the book is a science fiction story.  How do you hide what it’s about, while making certain that the appropriate audience reads your book?

It’s a conundrum.  And something to think about.

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That perfect twist

So, I’m watching this show called ‘Mr. Robot,’ and I’m rather enjoying it so far.  They’re doing some interesting things with the characters and the story arc… anyhow, about halfway through episode two I get this feeling in my head that they’re pulling a fight club on me.  I think that the main character of the show, who has mental problems and is on drugs half the time, is also at least one other character, the guy Christian Slater is playing.  He might be even more.  It popped into my head about halfway through episode two, so I kind of need to re-watch up to this point to see if there are any more indicators.  The biggest thing that makes me think that, however, is the style of the show.  There’s this helpless rage at the corporate machine, a sort of mind bending narration combined with self doubt.  The character is reaching out, trying to find something, trying to change who he is, or how the world work.  It reminds me so much of fight club that I can’t help but wonder.

Anyhow, that got me thinking about movie twists.  And whenever I think about twists in stories, I inevitably think of the twilight zone.  Not the recent reboot, but the original, with Rod Serling.  I used to love watching twilight zone marathons.  The thing was, once you’d seen a couple, you could pretty much guess the twists on the rest of them.  Well, not always, some were too random to really be guessed at.  The box of damaged toys being donated to charity?  Really?  That’s just a couple of writers getting drunk on the weekend going ‘what haven’t we done yet?  come on, there’s gotta be something.’

The thing is, the best twists, the most excellent, most interesting ones, aren’t the ones that come out of left field, they’re the ones that you should have seen coming but didn’t.  My favorite movies and television shows (twist-wise) are the ones where when you watch it the second time, it seems so obvious.

But there’s a delicate balance in there, I think.  It’s a dance between the writer and the reader, or viewer, or whatever.  Making a story where the ending is too obvious isn’t any fun, but you have to give enough clues that your audience can play the game, which means that some of them will see it coming.  A good writer of epic stories will set up a number of red herrings, each of which is possible, so that the conclusion they’re heading for is possible, but only one of several paths they can go down.  It keeps people guessing.

I think it’s a little harder in movies and television shows.  In books you have infinite time and space to work with… well, not infinite, but a lot.  In books and movies, every second needs to accomplish something.  Everything you do needs to have meaning.

My favorite twists to write are not the twist endings.  I mean, I like those from time to time, especially when I’m working on a short story, a little change of pace, a sudden shift in perspective, something that changes the meaning of everything that came before, it’s cool.  But in long stories, in a series, the things that interest me are less about the way things end and more about the way they began.  Sometimes the biggest twist is not where we’re going, but how we got here to start with.

And the some of the most satisfying twists are the ones that you make the reader wait for.  I’m reading the Dresden files a lot these days, and one of the things I’ve come to admire about Butcher’s work is how patient he is at doling out the payoffs.  He had his main character suffering debilitating headaches for several books before finally we discovered why.  And I’m convinced that Dresden will, at some point, journey through time… that he will be the one who fixed the problem with ‘little chicago’ in his basement all those years ago, that he is the person who he hears shouting ‘fuego’ in the battle at chichan itza… that he has had a hand in guiding his own life. All these things which have been set up over years and years, both in the story and out of it.  That’s what I’d like to pull off with some of my own writing.  I have some things set up for that with the Corpse-Eater Saga, but I’m not sure I”m as adept at that as I’d like to be.