August 26, 2021 / 2 Comments

When I SAY You Can Know It

Despite the pandemic, there’s still been a lot of fantastic storytelling going on. Books. Movies. TV shows. Some of it’s been fun, some of it nostalgic, some of it… well, let’s be honest, some of it was greatly delayed because of said pandemic. Regardless there’s been a lot of enjoyable stuff.


As Uncle Ben taught us, with great storytelling comes great spoilers.

As I’m sure you know, spoilers are a matter of great contention. Is it my fault or your fault if I post spoilers to something and you see them? How much time has to pass before spoilers are acceptable? Does getting them really affect my enjoyment of the story? Do spoilers even matter?

I’ve talked about (and in some cases, argued about) all these before, here and on the wider internet. But it’s that last one I wanted to blather on about today. Specifically, a certain angle some folks take with it you may have seen. It goes something like this…

”If knowing a spoiler ruins your story… maybe your story’s not that good.”

This one always makes me grind my teeth. Partly because it’s kind of an inherently smug thing to say, but also because it shows a basic misunderstanding of storytelling. Which is why it’s doubly annoying when I see it from… well, storytellers.

So let’s talk about narrative structure for a few minutes.

I’ve talked about this before at length, so I won’t do too much here (hit that link if you want a lot more). For our immediate purposes, narrative structure’s the order I’ve decided my plot points and character elements need to follow. It’s the sequence I want my audience to receive information in so they’ll get a certain dramatic effect. Simply put, narrative structure is the way I’ve chosen to tell my story.

If I want to tell my story in a straight A-to-Z fashion, that’s my narrative choice. If I want to use a bunch of flashbacks, that’s also up to me as the storyteller. Heck, if I decide to go completely nonlinear and change timeframes every other page without any apparent rhyme or reason… I mean, that’s my call. I’m the one telling the story and I (hopefully) have solid reasons for why I’m telling it in this specific way.

But whichever way I do it—assuming I do have a reason and I’m not just skipping around wildly because I thought it’d be cool—I’ve made a specific choice for my audience to get this piece of information first, this one second, this one third, and so on and so forth up to my five hundred and fortieth piece of information.

Yes, all real novels contain exactly five hundred and forty elements. No more, no less, just as Plato said in his many treatise on storytelling.


Now, that order’s important because my narrative structure is one of the thing that defines my story. If I put them in a different order, it’s a different story. That makes sense, right? An example I’ve used before is The Sixth Sense. If you’ve never seen it before and somehow avoided hearing about it… well, first off, seriously, good for you. Go see it right now. Go! Now! I can’t believe you’ve made it this long. And I’m about to spoil it, so please don’t keep reading.

Did you go away?

Okay, spoiler-filled explanation…

The Sixth Sense is the skin-crawling story of child psychologist named Malcolm who’s trying to treat a little boy named Cole. Cole’s haunted by ghosts that only he can see, which leaves him constantly traumatized and in shock. Malcolm helps Cole realize the ghosts are, in their own way, equally scared and asking for help. And as Cole begins to understand that his powers are a gift, not a curse, Malcolm comes to realize that he’s a ghost—that he died over a year ago in an encounter we saw at the start of the movie.

What’s great, though, is that—like I said up above—if you watch the movie a second time (or if someone spoils the twist for you), it becomes a very different story. In fact, knowing the truth about Malcolm and the other ghosts, the story becomes less scary and much more tragic. Almost goofy at points. Now it’s a story about a kid and his ghost friends solving mysteries. It’s pretty much Paranorman.

That’s the key thing here—The Sixth Sense becomes a differentstory. Not the one Shyamalan intended for us to see. Definitely not the one he narratively structured. The audience learning the truth about Malcolm is intended to be element five hundred and nine, not element one that we knew before we even sat down. Knowing the big twist changes it into a different story.

So the whole “…maybe your story’s not that good” argument doesn’t make a lot of sense, because if I see a bunch of spoilers it means I haven’t seenyour story. I saw a different story that had all the same elements, but in a different order and thus with different dramatic weights. It had a completely different narrative structure. I got Paranorman, not The Sixth Sense. Not that there’s anything wrong with Paranorman (I love it) but… it’s not the initial experience Shyamalan was trying to create for us.

Now, there’s another, related point we can make here. By their nature, spoilers tend to be some kind of reveal. It’s a piece of unknown or unexpected information. Maybe it’s a cool twist. Maybe it’s the identity of the murderer. Maybe it’s just a little cameo/ crossover beat. And sometimes, once that information’s been revealed, we realize this story didn’t have much else going for it. Once we know who the murderer is, we realize it was our own desire to know the answer carrying us through the story, not really the story itself. The story’s not flawed, it’s just… well, also not that great in any way.

Or maybe the answer just wasn’t quite worth the build up. Maybe the murderer turns out to be… well, exactly who we thought it was. Or someone we absolutely never could have considered (“Chris? Who the hell is Chris?”). Maybe the big twist happens and it… doesn’t make a lot of sense? Maybe it doesn’t change anything or doesn’t mean anything (“Chris is actually Pat’s long lost cousin? Well who the hell is Pat?”). In these cases the story beat might land with some impact in the moment, but not so much after the fact.

And, yeah, these stories have problems. I mean, a twist by its very nature should sort of retroactively rewrite large swaths of my story. If it doesn’t do that… well, that means I screwed up. If my flashback doesn’t make linear sense within my story, then I’ve done something wrong. My reveals aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do.

But problems with something flawed doesn’t mean the principle is flawed. I can’t say narrative structure doesn’t matter because a couple stories have crappy narrative structure. That’s like saying all sushi is bad because I bought sushi at a gas station once and it made me sick. Or, y’know, that Sharknado5: Global Swarming has a dumb twist that doesn’t change anything, therefore I can give away a bunch of stuff from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

I mean, maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense…

Yes, a really good story will still work once you know the big reveal. That’s why there are books we like to re-read and movies we watch three or four times. The storytellers were very careful to make sure  their narrative would still work even when it was forced to switch tracks because we knew things. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t want us to see the original story they planned out.

I know in my own writing I love having a good twists and reveals. Things that’ll make people sit up and go “WhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAATTT???” or maybe even shriek a favorite curse word or two. And I try very, very hard to make sure my books hold up on a second reading, that you’ll catch the little clues and maybe even realize I left some things sitting out in plain sight for you to catch on your second or third read, so that other story is still a fun one for you.

(like page 115 of Paradox Bound, for example. I don’t think anyone’s caught that. Not many people, anyway)

But that’s not the story I want you to read first. There’s a reason I put these things on page one and not page fifty, those things on page one hundred and not on page one, and why I was slightly vague about that so it’d be right where it was supposed to be… but you wouldn’t register what it was until a second or third time through.  Because this is the effect I’m trying to create, not that.

And the awful thing about spoilers is they make sure someone can never read this story. It’s almost impossible to unlearn something, so that experience gets lost forever. They never get to read thisstory… only that one.

And that’s a shame.

Again, as I mentioned above, still many issues about spoilers past this one. But hopefully—for now, at least—we’ve put the “do they even matter” question to rest. And also the “maybe your story’s not that good” defense of them.

Also-also, that Plato thing about halfway through was a joke. Please put that to rest too. In fact, forget it, just to be safe. Wipe it from your mental hard drive.

Next time…

I’ve got to be honest, I’m juggling four different projects right now and (at the moment) none of them have inspired a ranty blog post. So next week may just be some random cartoons or something unless any of you has a pressing question you’d like me to blather on about.

Until then… go write.

September 26, 2013

How To Be A Drama Queen

            Or a drama king.  I don’t judge…
            When we left off, I’d just finished babbling about narrative structure, which is how my readers experience a story.  Before that was linear structure–how my characters experience a story.  This week, I want to talk about how those two structures come together within a dramatic structure to form the actual story.
            Warning you now, this is going to be kind of big and rambling, but I’ve also included a lot of pictures.  Go grab a snack now and hit the restroom.  No one will be admitted during the dreadful story dissection scene…
            Also (warning the second), the story I’m going to dissect is The Sixth Sense.  If you’ve never seen it and somehow avoided hearing about it until now, stop reading and go watch it.  Seriously, if you’ve made it this long without having someone blow it for you, you need to see that movie cold.  People love to give M. Night Shyamalan crap, but there’s a reason The Sixth Sense made him a superstar writer-director.  So go watch it and then come back.  The ranty blog will be here waiting for you when you get back.
            Seriously.  Go.  Now.
            Okay, everyone back?
            As the name implies, dramatic structure involves drama.  Not in the “how will I make Edward love me” sense, but in relation to the building interactions between the elements of the story.  In most cases, these elements will be characters, but they can also be puzzles, giant monsters, time limits, or any number of things that keep my protagonist(s) from achieving his or her goal.  Any story worth telling (well, the vast, overwhelming majority of them) are going to involve a series of challenges and an escalation of tension.  Stakes will be raised, then raised again.  More on this in a bit.  
            Now, I don’t mean to scare you, but I’ve prepared a few graphs.  Don’t worry, they’re pretty simple and straightforward.  If you’ve been following the ranty blog for a while, they might even look a little familiar.
graph #1
            On this first graph (and all the others I’ll be showing you) X is the progression or the story, Y is dramatic tension.  This particular graph shows nothing happening (the blue line).  It’s an average day at the office, or maybe that long commute home on the train.  It’s flat and monotone.  No highs, no lows, no moments that stand out.
            Boring as hell.
            Harsh as it may sound, this graph is a good representation of a lot of little indie art films and stories.  There are a lot of wonderful character moments, but nothing actually happens.  Tonally, the end of the story is no different than the beginning.
graph #2
            As a story progresses, tension needs to rise.  Things need to happen.  Challenges need to arise and be confronted.  By halfway through, the different elements of the story should’ve made things much more difficult for my main character.  As I close in on the end, they should be peaking. 
            Mind you, these don’t need to be gigantic action set pieces or nightmarish horror moments.   If the whole goal of this story is for Wakko to ask Phoebe out without looking like an idiot, a challenge could be finding the right clothes or picking the right moment in the day.  But there needs to be something for my character to do to get that line higher and higher..
            Now, here’s the first catch…
graph #3
            Some people start with the line up high.  They begin their story at eight and the action never stops (I’m looking at you, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest).  This doesn’t leave a lot of room for things to develop, but the idea is that you don’t have time to see that because we’re hitting the ground running and going until we drop.
            You might notice the line on this graph looks a lot like that first one up above.  It’s pretty much just a straight line because there isn’t anywhere for things to go.  And, as we established, straight lines are pretty boring.  They’re monotone, and monotone is dull whether the line’s set at one-point-five or at eleven.
Rising with setbacks
            That’s the second catch.  Dramatic structure can’t just be a clean rise like that second graph.  That’s another straight line.  And straight lines are… well, I’m sure you get it by this point.  In a good story, there will be multiple challenges and the hero isn’t going to succeed at all of them.  He or she will win in the end, of course, but it’s not going to be easy getting there.  They’ll face mistakes, surprises, bigger challenges, and determined adversaries.  For every success, there’s going to be some setbacks.  So that blue line needs to be a series of peaks and drops. 
            If you know your physics, you know that we don’t feel a constant velocity.  Think about riding in a car.  As long as it’s a steady speed, you don’t notice.  You can drink coffee, move around, whatever.  What we feel is acceleration—the change in velocity.  Those ups and downs are when things stand out, when we know something’s happening.
            Make sense?
            So, with that in mind, here’s a big graph.
             This is everything together.  X is narrative structure.  It’s the story progressing from page one until the end of my story, novel, or screenplay.  Y is dramatic structure. We can see the plot rising and falling as the characters have successes and failures which still continue to build.  And the letters on the blue line are the linear structure.  We’re beginning at G, but there are two flashbacks in there that go back to A and D.
            Notice that D-F flashback.  Even though it’s near the end of the story, it’s got more dramatic weight than G through K.  This is the big, easy trick to dramatic structure.  No matter what my narrative is doing, it has to keep increasing the tension.
            Y’see, Timmy, this graph is what pretty much every story should look like if I map it out.  They’re all going to start small in the beginning and grow.  We’ll see tension rising and falling as challenges appear, advances are made, and setbacks occur.  They’re not going to be exactly like this, but the basic structure—an escalating, jagged line—is almost always a given.  Small at the start, increase with peaks and dips, finish big.
            Simple, yes?
            Keep in mind, this isn’t an automatic thing.  This is something I, as the writer, need to be aware of while I craft my story.  If I have a chapter that’s incredibly slow, it shouldn’t be near the end of my book.  If a scene has no dramatic tension in it at all, it shouldn’t be in the final pages of my screenplay.  And if it is, it means I’m doing something wrong.
            Now, that being said, it should be clear that where things happen within a narrative is going to effect how much weight they have.  Again, dramatic structure tells us that things in the beginning are small, things at the end are big.  Something that’s an amazing reveal at the end of the story won’t have the same impact at the beginning.
            Let me give you an example.  It’s the one I warned you about at the top.  I’d like to tell you an abridged version of The Sixth Sense.  But I’d like to tell it to you in linear order.
            The Sixth Sense is the story of Malcolm, a child therapist who is killed by one of his former patients in a murder-suicide.  Malcolm becomes a ghost, but doesn’t realize he’s died so he continues to “see” his patients.  Several months later, across the city, a woman becomes jealous of her new husband’s daughter, Kyra, and begins to slowly poison the girl.  It’s about this time that Malcolm meets Cole, a little boy with the power to see ghosts, and decides to take Cole on as a patient, helping him deal with the crippling fear the ghosts cause.  When Kyra finally succumbs to the poison and becomes a ghost, she finds Cole, too—inadvertently terrifying him when she does.  Malcolm suggests to Cole that helping her might help him get over his fear.  Cole helps expose Kyra’s stepmother as a murderer and also helps Malcolm come to realize his own status as one of the deceased.  And everyone lives happily ever after.  Even the dead people.
            The happily ever after is a bit of an exaggeration, granted, but it should make something else clear.  When the narrative of this story follows the linear structure, a huge amount of drama is stripped away.  It’s so timid and bland it almost reads like an after-school special rather than a horror movie.  A lot of the power of this story came from the narrative structure.  The order Shyamalan told this story in is what gave it such an amazing dramatic structure (and made him a household name).
            This is what I’ve talked about a few times with flashbacks and non-linear storytelling.  There needs to be a reason for this shift to happen at this point—a reason that continues to feed the dramatic structure.  If my dramatic tension is at seven and I go into a flashback, that flashback better take it up to seven-point-five or eight.  And if it doesn’t, I shouldn’t be having a flashback right now.  Not that one, anyway.
            For the record, this is also why spoilers suck.  See, looking up at the big graph again, E is very high up in the dramatic tension.  It’s a big moment, probably a game-changing reveal, in a flashback.  If I tell you about E before you read the story (or see the movie or watch the episode or whatever), I’ve automatically put E at the beginning–it’s now one of the first events you’ve encountered in the narrative.   And because it’s at the beginning, it’s now equal to G in dramatic tension.  Because things at the start of the story always have very low tension ratings.
why spoilers suck
            The thing is, though, E isn’t at the start of the story.  It’s near the end.  So now when I get to where E really is in the story, it isn’t that big spike anymore.  It’s down at the bottom.  The dramatic structure of the story is blown because I didn’t get that information at the right point.  It even looks wrong on the graph when the blue  line bottoms out like that.
            If you want an example of this (without giving anything away), consider Star Trek Into DarknessI can’t help but notice that a lot of people who were demanding to know plot and character information  months before the movie came out were also the same ones later complaining about how weak the story was.  Personally, I went out of my way to avoid spoilers and found the movie to be very entertaining.  It wasn’t the most phenomenal film of the summer, but I had a lot of fun with it
            It’s dismissed as coincidence.
            Now, here’s one last cool thing about dramatic structure.  It makes it easy to spot if a story is worth telling.  I don’t mean that in a snide, demeaning way.  The truth is, though, there are a lot of stories out there which just aren’t that interesting.  Since I know a good story should follow that ascending pattern of challenges and setbacks, it’s pretty easy for me to look at even the bare bones of a narrative and figure out if it fits the pattern.
            For example…
            By nature of my chosen genre, I tend to read a lot of post-apocalyptic stories and see a lot of those movies.  I’ve read and watched stories set in different climates, different countries, and with different reasons behind the end of the world.  I’ve also seen lots of different types of survivors.  Hands down, the least interesting ones are the uber-prepared ones.  At least a dozen times I’ve seen a main character who decides on page five to turn his or her house into a survival bunker for the thinnest of reasons, filling it with food, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies.  But twenty pages later, when the zombies finally appear…  damn, are they ready.  Utterly, completely ready.
            In other words… there’s no challenge.  There’s no mistakes, no problems, no setbacks.  The plot in most of these stories just drifts along from one incident straight to another, and the fully prepped, fully trained, and fully loaded hero is able to deal with each one with minimal effort.  That’s not a story worth telling, because that story is a line.  And I’m sure you still remember my thoughts on lines…
            On the other hand we have C Dulaney’s series, Roads Less Traveled.  The series begins with The Plan, protagonist Kasey’s careful and precise strategy for surviving the end of civilization.  But almost immediately, the plan starts to go wrong.  One of the key people doesn’t make it, a bunch of unexpected people do, and things spiral rapidly downward.  Challenges and setbacks spring up as the tension goes higher and higher.
            That sound familiar?
            And honestly… that’s all I’ve got for you.  I know I’ve spewed a lot, but I wish I could offer you more.  Y’see, Timmy (yep, it’s another double Y’see, Timmy post), while the other two forms of structure are very logical, dramatic structure relies more on gut feelings and empathy with my reader.  I have to understand how information’s going to be received and interpreted if I’m going to release that information in a way that builds tension.  And that’s a lot harder to teach or explain.  The best I can do is point someone in the right direction, let them gain some experience, and hopefully they’ll figure it out for themselves.
            So here’s a rough map of dramatic structure.  
            Head that way.
            Next week, I’ll probably blab a bit about Watson, the supercomputer.
            Until then… go write.

So, enough with the ranting about only-loosely-writing-related matters. Let’s get back to the important stuff.

A few weeks back I went on about some of the tricks to writing a solid mystery. Today I’d like to talk about mystery’s fraternal twin– the twist.

I say fraternal twin because they look a lot alike at first glance, and share a similar DNA. It’s not uncommon for a mystery to have a solution that’s a bit of a twist. A good twist may also result in a few minor mysteries. They’re two very separate things, though, and each can exist without the other.

A correctly done twist makes a reader say something out loud (what depends on your own personal favorite interjective). It sucks all the air out of the theater as the audience takes one huge, collective sharp breath.

That’s also why it’s always apparent when a writer can’t tell the difference between the two and is using them incorrectly. Which happens far too often, in my experience. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that confuse a mystery with a twist, and a twist with someone going “HAH!!” really loud for no reason. If you’re not sure which one you’re doing, or how to do them, things can get ugly (and confusing, and pointless) very fast.

So, let’s stand the two of them next to each other and take a look.

As hinted at before, a mystery is when the main character and the audience are aware that a piece (or pieces) of information has been hidden or kept from them, and the story usually involves the search for that unknown fact. Who murdered Professor Peach in the library with the lead pipe? How did the killer get out of this locked room? What the heck does “Rosebud” mean? How did that ancient mummy come to life, and why is it so eager to get that old coin? At its simplest, a mystery is a question someone in your story is asking and trying to find the answer to.

A twist, on the other hand, is when a piece of information is revealed that your characters and the audience didn’t know was being kept from them. When a twist appears, it comes from out of the blue, a complete surprise to everyone. They don’t even suspect those facts are out there, waiting to affect the story.

That’s part two of a correctly-done twist. It’s very relevant to the story. The fact that I have a mother and father is not really a twist. Neither is the fact that I grew up within a mile of a large amusement park, nor that I like Doctor Who. They are revealed information, yes, but that doesn’t make them twists. This newly revealed information should not only affect everything that happens from here on in, it should also make the audience look back at everything that’s already occurred in a new light. As the term implies, it should twist how they see things. Stories and novels with a well-done twist are great to read a second time because all those earlier chapters take on a different meaning. The same goes for re-watching films that have a great twist in them.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense is the usual example of a story with a great twist. While it does meet every one of these criteria, for my personal taste, that twist happens too far into the story. That’s just me, but I’m the one writing this so I get to pull rank. I personally prefer the wonderfully theater-vacuum-creating Dead Again, by genius screenwriter Scott Frank and starring/ directed by Kenneth Branagh. I’m about to spoil it for you to give examples, so if you haven’t seen it you probably want to stop reading. Seriously. Just go watch it first, because it’s a phenomenal story and the reveals will make you scream.

So, two parts for a successful twist—

First, the audience doesn’t know the information is being withheld. In Dead Again, neither Mike Church (Branagh) nor the audience have any reason to wonder who Madson was as a child, so they don’t. I mean, he was just a young version of himself, right, like everyone else was?

Second, the twist changes everything. Once we know little Frankie and Madson are one and the same, every scene takes on a new light. His eagerness to help. The attempts to seperate Mike and Grace. The history of the antique scissors. Watching Dead Again the second time makes for an entirely different movie than the first time you see it.

If you’ve put a twist in your writing, just check and see if it meets these two simple requirements. It’s withheld information the character and the audience are completely unaware of. It’s also a relevant fact (or facts) that changes their perspective of all the story elements that have passed and alters the flow of the story with its reveal.

Two step process. Nice and easy. Feel free to take it on a test drive.

Next week, some important tips from this Nigerian prince who just contacted me. Until then, get back to writing.