Monday, November 17, 2008

Liar, Liar

Feeling a bit better today. Typing is the most strenuous thing I'm going to do today so MAYBE tonight we can go out Christmas Shopping.

Do NOT get the stomach flu!

On to writing.

The Lying Writer:

I think I've written before about having read WAY too many horror stories in which, SUPRISE! the main character is actually a vampire!! And we only find this out, or even have any acceptable clues, in the last paragraph, sentence, or words.

The Surprise Ending, that ill-conceived attempt at building suspense, isn't exclusive to horror. Bad mystery writers use it. Bad fantasy writers use it. Bad science fiction writers use it. So what ever gave these writers the idea that it's a good idea? That it's clever? That it satisfies the reader in any way?

It's crucial at this point to distinguish between a "plot twist" and a "surprise ending." First, "plot twist" GOOD! "Surprise ending" BAD!

A plot twist is an often unexpected, but internally supported change in story direction. We'll take some examples from a fairly ancient piece of literature, to show that even a thousand years ago or more good writers knew the difference. "The Tale of the Three Apples" from the Tales of the Arabian Knights begins with a poor fisherman complaining to the Caliph that he hasn't been able to catch anything to feed his family with, let alone make any extra money to live on. The Caliph takes him to a different part of the river and tells him to cast in his line, and that whatever the old fisherman brings up, the Caliph will buy from him. The fisherman casts, and drags in a chest.

The Caliph pays the fisherman and sends him on his way. Then the chest is opened:

"Ja'afar and Masrur then broke it open and found therein a basket of palm leaves corded with red worsted. This they cut open and saw within it a piece of carpet, which they lifted out, and under it was a woman's mantilla folded in four, which they pulled out, and at the bottom of the chest they came upon a young lady, fair as a silver ingot, slain and cut into nineteen pieces."

Wow! That's quite the surprise. But is it unsupported? Of course not. When someone finds a heavy chest, anything could be inside. And the writer further leads you to a well-supported twist by taking you through the layers of basket, rug, and fabric before revealing the body.

Wow! It's cut up into nineteen pieces! That's quite the surprise, too. But equally supported--by the fact that it's a body stuffed in a trunk--an obvious victim of murder most foul. (You didn't know the Tale of Arabian Knights included murder mysteries, did you.)

To be quite short, this story is full of twists and surprises, every one of them supported, every one of them explained. At the end of the story we say, "AH! Of course! Yes, justice has been done."

(Well, not exactly. The murderer never actually pays for the crime in this story. Ja'afar goes on to tell the next tale in the sequence to buy the life of the real murderer. Read it here: )

So when is a plot twist a "SURPRISE!" ending?

When you, as the reader, engage in one of two reactions:
1. Huh?!? No way! The writer never gave me any clues whatsoever to make this a plausible solution!

Example: A murder mystery, told through the point of view of the detective. He follows trails, collects clues, interviews witnesses and potential suspects, makes accusations. Readers are intentionally led to suspect certain characters, left guessing all along (which a murder mystery SHOULD do). Then, on the very last page, SURPRISE!! we find out that the murderer is---the detective!

In this example, the reader has been misled, cheated, lied to all along. A well-written murder mystery never lies. It is full of liars and unreliable witnesses, but never once do we consider them fully truthful. The narrator never lies without us KNOWING that he is a liar. We are constantly skeptical of everyone's motivations and testimony except the one person in the murder mystery who carries us through the story. Usually this is the detective (Hercule Poirot) or meddling town busybody (Miss Marple). We don't know the solution because the detective doesn't know the solution. We figure it out when the detective figures it out. As it should be.


2. *roll of the eyes* Whatever! Give me a break! That was SO lame!

Example: A character in a story is struggling with a dark assailant. She is tied up. The reader feels for her struggle, fears for her safety, roots for her, wants her to be strong enough to free herself. Then, in the last line of the story, SURPRISE!! we discover that the assailant is a spider, the victim a fly.

Seems clever on the surface, but it is a lie. Readers don't like to be lied to, unless they can, in some way, surmise that they are being lied to.

Let me tell you what happens inside a reader's brain while they read:

A reader, using the clues and descriptions the writer gives them, creates a mental image of the scenery, the characters, the circumstances of the story. The reader's imagination becomes engaged--and when that happens, the writer has succeeded in making the reader PART of the story. Once the reader has become imaginatively engaged, it is the writer's responsibility NEVER (and I mean NEVER) to counter the reader's mental image.

If a story misleads the reader to form one mental image, then the writer provides a disparate written detail, the reader's mind must stop, rethink, readjust and go on. Every time the reader must stop (at any time, for any reason) the likelihood of him not continuing increases. If the writer creates a mental image, then counters it in the last line of the story, the reader feels cheated, cheated, cheated. He will throw the book or story down in disgust and curse the writer's name and rue the time he spent reading the story at all. If too many writers try to cheat the readers, we'll all have fewer readers. That's bad for us all. It's like politics. If we keep electing liars and cheats based on their misleading politicking, we'll eventually stop voting at all.

Writers have the heavy responsibility NEVER to waste the reader's time by misleading them.

So how might the above examples be successfully fixed?

The detective story should probably be told from the point of view of another character--perhaps an assistant detective or a victim's relative. This way the reader is never inside the mind of the detective. The writer should also plant some little tidbits of information that cast doubt on the character of the detective. Maybe some character flaws, or a relationship with the victim, some doubt as to the detective's alibi.

In the spider/fly story... I don't know. As a reader I'm not much interested in the struggle between a spider and a fly. I really don't want to be inside the mind of fly, or a cat or a hamster. I'm a human. I understand what it is to be human. If a writer wants me to sympathize with the poor fly, then help me relate to it through human experience, rather than through the fly's. For instance, a woman watches a fly struggling in a web and relates it to how she felt when she was assaulted--though I really can't stomach reading yet another rape/incest/sexual abuse story right now. Ugh. OK, so a more positive example--the story of Robert Bruce watching the spider and learning from its persistence and eventual success. We the reader, relate to both Bruce and gain some understanding for the spider.

Wow. Long post. Enough for today, I think. Next time...

Editorial Roullette.

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